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Let’s be clear about clarity

Andrew Steeds

“I trust I make myself obscure?”

I loved this line (from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons) when I first saw the great Paul Scofield say it in Fred Zinnemann’s film of the play (the play has some other wonderful lines and exchanges, including one between Thomas More and Rich, played in the film by a very young John Hurt). It still tickles me. I wonder, mischievously, whether it is the motto of many a university department, and of those academic writers who apparently see their wilful obscurity as a badge of honour.

But I also think it’s worth considering what we all mean by clarity, why we think it’s so great to be clear? Clarifying is, after all, in many respects the main thing that editors are meant to do to a piece of writing – clarifying the writer’s intentions, because what is clear to the writer may not be clear to the reader and because between the writer’s idea of what they have written and the reality of the words on the page or on the screen falls the shadow. If you have any doubt about that, just read this sentence from a newspaper report on the story of David Blunkett’s paternity case:

He hoped the tests would show that he was the father of his lover’s son, William, not her husband, Stephen.

The editor’s task is to act as an intermediary between the outside world of the reader and the inside world of the writer. In this respect the editor, and editing, is like a window: it’s there in the service of transparency, and the only time you should become aware of it, as a reader, is when it’s not doing its job properly. As with a window, not being clear does nobody any favours: not the writer, nor the editor, nor the reader, nor the organisation that publishes the writer’s text.

Of course, we’re all likely to be in favour of clarity (it’s a kind of motherhood and apple pie) but I wonder whether we all understand the same thing by it. It’s an obvious point, though one that hasn’t been taken on by everyone involved in the business of producing written texts, that what is clear to an adult may not be clear to a child, just as what is clear to a native English speaker may not be clear to someone whose first language is not English, and so on. There are still many writers, and many editors, who do not understand that what is clear to them might not necessarily be clear to someone who doesn’t share a similar background, whether intellectual or academic or specialist in some other way.

At a seminar recently, I tried some incredibly unscientific research to see whether we all agreed about what clarity looked like. I put some short texts up on the screen and asked those present to put their hand up if, at first reading, the text seemed to them immediately clear. These were the texts:

The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears that is true. (J Robert Oppenheimer)

When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. (Eric Cantona)

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know. (Donald Rumsfeld)

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. (Albert Einstein)

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant. (Robert McCloskey)

Goalkeepers aren’t born today until they’re in their late twenties or thirties. (Kevin Keegan)

Kill your darlings. (William Faulkner)

To my relief, there was no consensus on these texts: one person found all of them immediately clear but most people were OK with some and thought others less clear.

It seems a bit strange to me now, but at least two of these examples were subjected to laughing ridicule when they were first heard – Eric Cantona’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s; indeed, the Rumsfeld piece received a ‘Foot in Mouth’ prize from the Plain English Campaign for that year. And both quotes were greeted with similar amusement in the seminar and considered to be among the least clear of the bunch. Maybe it’s because I’m looking at them from a distance of a few years, but both of these quotes seem to me completely clear – and I say that as someone who’s far from being a fan of Rumsfeld (though I am a fan of Cantona).

I think five obvious points emerge from this unscientific experiment:

(1) Clarity is not an objective fact. What is clear to one person may not be clear to another.

(2) Clarity is not measurable. There are of course organisations that will sit in judgement on what’s been written and pronounce on how clear or unclear it is (Simply Put, for example, or more famous ones such as the Plain English Campaign); and there are a bewildering number of readability measures, which give a score of how readable a piece of writing is – the Flesch Kincaid measure, for example, which is available free through Word. But these can’t measure clarity. For example, if you pass the texts I’ve just given you through the Flesch Kincaid measure on Word, Kevin Keegan’s comes out as the least readable, at 53.6%. And the most readable turns out to be Donald Rumsfeld’s, the one that most people at the seminar thought was the least clear but which, in Flesch Kincaid, comes in at an unassailable 100%.

(3) Something may be clearly expressed even if what it is expressing is in fact quite complicated. ‘Existence precedes essence’, for example; or ‘I think therefore I am’.

(4) Conversely, of course, something that is actually very simple can be expressed in a ferociously complicated fashion. Here’s my current favourite, taken from a job description: ‘An experience-based understanding of multi-level personnel relationships will be within your remit.’ That doesn’t mean anything more, does it, than ‘You’ll need to be able to get on with people’?

(5) We understand things at different levels – sometimes a straightforward statement such as Faulkner’s above involves three runs-though: at the first we go something like ‘Ah, it’s not actually a call to infanticide – it’s a metaphor’; the second take is to realise that he means ‘the things you are fondest of’; and then we engage with the content – why does he think your writing improves, apparently paradoxically, if you strip out of it all the things you felt best about putting in? And all that from three words.

So, while I wouldn’t want to come over all-Thomas More and ‘trust I make myself obscure’, I do think it is worth reflecting, as with all aspects of writing and editing, on whether the clarity we’re trying to create is the clarity our readers want, need and will thank us for.