The Importance of Erring for Clarity Over Conciseness
Conciseness is very important in writing, especially in news articles, blog posts, filling out forms, and in other forms of writing where space is limited and words must be conserved. However, conciseness should not come at the cost of clarity. Sure, unnecessary details can be omitted in favor of generality, but unnecessary confusion and ambiguity should not be created.
Sources of the issue
The problem arises from the many different ways we can use the same words to mean different things depending on: the context, the use of modifying words, or the specific industry or community. This means that in writing, the phrase “less is more” often does not apply to word count.
The English language is replete with homonyms, which can lead to confusion. Most often the meaning intended is clear from the context, but other times it is not and therefore words must be added to provide clarity either by modifying or changing the word to make its intended use clear or by supplying additional context.
The 21st century has introduced us to a new technology which can pose clarity issues. This technology is autocorrect. Autocorrect is a valuable writing tool that helps correct errors automatically, but it is not perfect, and we have all seen, and likely been the victim or recipient of, autocorrect failures. An autocorrect failure is when autocorrect incorrectly corrects a word, usually distorting the meaning of the sentence, often drastically. These failures may often be funny to read, but they can also have disastrous and embarrassing outcomes, especially if the recipient doesn’t believe it was a mistake.
Why is clarity important?
A lack of clarity can cause lost profits, lower grades, relationship issues, lower amounts of readers, and many more negative side effects which every type of writer should strive to avoid.
In literature, the most likely result of unclear writing is that readers will simply put down your book, leave your website, or find a new story to read. If writing literature is just a hobby, this may feel humiliating when no one wants to read your work and reviews it poorly, but if you make your livelihood writing literature then the results of lower readership are even more tragic, a loss of income
Texting is a type of writing that is usually extremely concise. This means that there is very little context with which to discern the meaning of your words. This means that clarity becomes extremely important. Failure to be clear in texts can lead to embarrassing results, such as accidentally sending an embarrassing text (which was not meant to be embarrassing) to a loved one. Lack of clarity can also lead to inadvertently damaging or ending relationships. If the text is work related, all the potential consequences related to business writing, which is discussed below, also apply. Autocorrect also poses a potential clarity issue when texting. The texting issues are also present when writing emails, though usually to a lesser extent since emails tend to be longer and contain more context.
Business writing includes contracts, memos, press releases, various reports, sales documents, and many more forms of writing. These forms of writing may be internal or external, but they are all designed to either inform (such as about the proper procedures) or convince (such as to purchase a product) the reader. The writing can also be designed to perform a combination of both tasks. In order to communicate effectively in business writing, whatever the purpose for the writing, the writing must be clear and accurately convey the information and message it is designed to convey so that the reader can act upon it. In business, a lack of clarity can result in a loss of business and can potentially cause you to lose your job. Business can be lost through lost sales opportunities, damage or waste caused by improper procedures, legal liability due to a variety of reasons, fines due to accidentally non-compliance with regulations, or many more reasons.
Ways to achieve clarity
Fixing this issue doesn’t require, as some may be thinking, adding a ton of words. Most often it can be rectified by either swapping the word for a clearer and more precise one, or by adding a few key words to add description and clarity. Sometimes it is also possible to rewrite the sentence and possibly omit other words in order to add clarity while not increasing, and occasionally decreasing, the word count (or at least minimizing the increase if one is unavoidable). Often issues can even be solved by properly utilizing punctuation marks, most notably commas.
Clarity can also be achieved by using active voice and parallel sentence construction, both of which usually result in concise and clear sentences if properly utilized.
Another potential problem area is acronyms and abbreviations, especially those that aren’t in the common use. Remember the intended audience of the writing, will they know what you are saying? Using acronyms and abbreviations is perfectly fine, but only if the reader knows what you mean. Acronyms can be confusing, unknown, obscure, and some even have multiple possible meanings. Even though it takes extra space on the paper, when in doubt, spell out the acronym or abbreviation before using it.
Multiple negatives should also be avoided as they tend to increase word counts while decreasing clarity. Multiple negatives are, with a few exceptions, not useful in writing and only serve to unnecessarily confuse the reader. In literature this means the reader will set your work down, but in business or professional writing this can lead to major issues because confusion can cause lost profits or other issues.
An additional, and simple, way to achieve clarity is to check for autocorrect failures. The best way to avoid autocorrect issues is to thoroughly proofread your writing to ensure that every word present on the page is actually the word you intended. This practice is also good for catching other types of errors as well.
In conclusion, writing often requires conciseness, however, one must be careful to select and use words in such a way so as to not sacrifice clarity for the sake of being concise because failure to do so will result in a piece of writing that may be concise, but will also be confusing and therefore will not be useful or reader friendly.