Clarity means that the reader understands exactly what you mean. Your sentences must be a reasonable length, the grammar must be clear, and you must choose words that are familiar and specific.
Lost in Translation
Writing in English can be difficult for non-native speakers, as you may not be familiar with vocabulary. Your dictionary may inform you that a word in Japanese is equal to another word in English—but the nuance or usage of the term may be different from what you expect.
For example, a famous British author wrote a novel about Japan; in one scene, a character points a gun at another character, and wants to say, "Dont move! Please!" The author used a dictionary to find the expression "Don't move," and found Ugoku na! Then, the writer used the dictionary for the word "Please," and found "Douzo!" The sentence the author wrote came across as nonsense in Japanese. ("Don't move! Please do!")
All too often, I get essays from students which have similarly bad constructions, created by stringing together dictionary words. Sometimes the error is one of transference, when you use the language rules of your native language to construct a sentence in a different language. Sometimes it is the use of words with subtle nuances which are not correctly used.
Sometimes unclear writing is simply careless, lazily-written prose. The author has a general idea of what to say, but does not plan or think very hard. It may be difficult to think of examples, so a student instead will simply write in a very general sense. This becomes even worse when a student tries to use "intelligent" vocabulary.
Here is an example of the type of writing I sometimes see:
There are many knowledge purposes in my family. First, my brother connects with his tasks diligently. Second, my sister establishes sensitivity with others with serious resolve. One method of doing this is through the establishment of legacy.
The above sentences are perhaps grammatically correct—however, their meaning is completely unclear.
Avoid "Academic" English
A major cause of this problem is the idea that academic writing must be "high-level," using complex sentences with advanced vocabulary. This is not true. Academic writing can use simple language—basic sentences with plain language. Clarity is far more important.
An excellent example comes from American literature. Two famous writers, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulker, disagreed on writing styles. Faulkner preferred to use a complex style, using difficult sentences and challenging vocabulary. Hemingway, in contrast, used short, simple sentences with rather plain words. Faulkner criticized Hemingway, saying that he "had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary." Hemingway replied:
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
What did Hemingway mean? Why are "older and simpler" words better?
The answer lies in how words gain meaning from usage. For example, when I first came to Japan, I knew the word gaijin meant "foreigner," and I did not think it was a bad word. However, that quickly changed. When looking for an apartment, most landlords told me, "gaijin wa dame!" ("Foreigners are no good!") When sports writers described American players as being violent, they wrote the word "gaijin" with the kanji "害人," which is also pronounced "gaijin," but means "Harmful Person." After many such experiences, I found the term gaijin to be offensive.
In short, my experience with the word changed its meaning. Experience adds emotional impact to a word.
A Punch to the Gut
Consider the words "purloin" and "steal." They both mean the same thing. However, the word "purloin" is hardly ever used. Native speakers usually understand the meaning, but to them, it is just a word. It has no emotional impact. In fact, it comes out sounding rather odd:
- Someone purloined my wallet!
- Someone stole my wallet!
The word "steal," on the other hand, has great impact. Most native speakers have heard the word used many, many times—and usually in contexts where the word has a very strong, negative emotion. In high school, someone stole my bicycle; when I was trying on new pants at a department store in my college years, someone stole the money from my wallet (true stories). You hear stories from other people about how their car was stolen, or their television set was stolen when their house was robbed. All of these experiences create an emotional link to the word steal—and impact which more difficult words, such as "purloin," do not have.
That's what Hemingway was talking about. The simpler, older words are better because we attach more meaning to them—more feeling to them.
Sense of Audience Knowledge
One more important point: most writers forget that their audience does not know what the writer knows. When you write, you usually write "to yourself"—you write text which you can understand. However, what your audience understands is more important. If you use a word, you must ask whether your audience knows this word; if you mention an organization, you must consider whether your audience understands it well enough.
Many times, such circumstances are very simple. Maybe you are writing about dogs, and you mention grooming. As a dog owner, you would know that this includes not just bathing, but also nail clipping, tooth cleaning, and general health maintenance. Your audience, however, might not know this; the word "grooming" usually means, to most people, brushing one's hair (or fur). Without clarification, your audience will not see the same picture that you see.
The lesson is: be clear first and most importantly. Don't try to use fancy vocabulary and overly complex sentences. Understand what your audience will think when they read your writing. Try as hard as you can to make your audience understand your message as clearly as possible.