The Craft of Research: Booth, Colomb and Williams’ four rules for writing clearly

I highly recommend the Craft of Research as a guide to structuring and writing research. It also contains – in Chapter Seventeen of the third edition – one of the best and most actionable guides to writing clearly that I’ve ever come across. If credible people frequently tell you that your writing is brilliant, it may not be for you. The rest of us should probably have it tattooed across our forearms for ease of reference.

Defining the Problem

Here’s the opening of the chapter to give you a feel for what he’s up to, followed by four simple rules to help you improve the clarity of your writing.

Revising Style: Telling Your Story Clearly

So far we have focused on the argument and organization of your report. In this chapter we show you how to revise your sentences so that readers will think they are clear and direct. Readers will accept your claim only if they understand your argument, but they won’t understand your argument if they can’t understand your sentences.

Once you revise your report so that readers will judge its argument to be sound and well organized, find time to make a last pass to make your sentences as easy to read as the complexity of your ideas allows. But again, you face a familiar problem: you can’t know which sentences need revising just by reading them. Since you already know what you want them to mean, you will read into them what you want your readers to get out of them. To ensure that your sentences will be as clear to your readers as they are to you, you need a way to identify difficult sentences even when they seem fine to you.

17.1 Judging Style

If you had to read a report written in the style of one of the following lowing examples, which would you choose?

1a. Too precise a specification of information-processing requirements incurs a risk of a decision-maker’s over- or underestimation, resulting in the inefficient use of costly resources. Too little precision in specifying needed processing capacity gives no indication with respect to the procurement of needed resources.

1b. A person who makes decisions sometimes specifies what he needs to process information. He may do so too precisely. He may over- or underestimate the resources that he needs. When he does that, he may use costly resources inefficiently. He may also fail to be precise enough. He may not indicate which resources others should procure.

1c. When a decision-maker specifies too precisely the resources he needs to process information, he may over- or underestimate them and thereby use costly resources inefficiently. But if he is not precise enough, he may not indicate which resources to procure.

Few readers choose (1a): it sounds like a machine speaking to a machine (it appeared in a respectable journal). Some choose (1b), but it sounds simpleminded, like an adult speaking slowly to a child. Most choose (1c). It sounds like one colleague speaking to another.

One of the worst problems in academic writing today is that too many researchers sound like (1a). A few researchers prefer (1a), claiming that heavy thinking demands heavy writing, that when they try to make complicated ideas clear, they sacrifice nuances and complexity of thought for too-easy understanding. If readers don’t understand, too bad; they should work harder.

Perhaps. Everyone who reads philosophers like Immanuel Kant or Friedrich Hegel struggles with their complex prose style, at least at first. But what they have to say proves to be worth the effort. The problem is, few of us think as well as Kant or Hegel. For most of us most of the time, our dense writing indicates not the irreducible difficulty of a work of genius, but the sloppy thinking of a writer indifferent to his readers. And even when complex thinking does require a complex style (less often than we think), every sentence profits from a second look (and truth be told, Kant and Hegel would have benefited from a good editor).

Some writers do go too far in avoiding a complex style, using simplistic sentences like those in (1b) above. But we assume that most of you do not have that problem, and that you need little help with spelling and grammar. (If you think you do, talk to a writing tutor.) We address here the problem of a style that is too “academic,” which is to say, more difficult than it has to be. Convoluted and indirect direct prose is not what good writers aim for, but what thoughtless ones get away with.

This problem especially afflicts those just starting advanced work because they are hit by double trouble. First, when any of us writes about new and complex ideas that challenge our understanding, we write less clearly than we ordinarily can. This problem afflicts even the most experienced researchers. But new researchers compound that problem when they think that a complex style bespeaks academic success and they imitate the tangled prose they read. That we can avoid.

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams – The Craft of Research

Four Powerful Rules for Clearer Writing

Booth, Colomb and Williams offer four simple rules to avoid the problems described above, with plenty of worked examples. Here’s a summary:

  1. Express crucial actions in verbs.
  2. Make your central characters the subjects of those verbs; keep those subjects short, concrete, and specific.

    Example for rules 1 and 2:

    Verbs in bold; subjects underlined.

    LESS CLEAR / WORDY:
    The reason for the people’s distrust of the government lies in the ruling coalition’s dishonest use of statistics.”

    CLEARER:
    The people distrust the government because the ruling coalition uses statistics dishonestly.”
  3. Old before new: begin sentences with information already known to the reader.
  4. Complexity last: put the newest, most complex information at the end of the sentence, especially:

    – When introducing a new technical term;
    – When presenting a long or complex unit of information;
    – When introducing a concept that will be developed in subsequent sentences.

    Example for rules 3 and 4:

    LESS CLEAR::
    King Richard was a brave and wonderful king. Vindictive and cruel John, his brother, was a terrible one.

    CLEARER:
    King Richard was a brave and wonderful king. His brother John, who was vindictive and cruel, was a terrible one.

    You could diagram it like this:

    [UNCLEAR – a sentence with a jumpy, looping structure of thoughts]:
    Idea A – > idea B. Idea C – > idea B.

    [CLEAR – a sentence that gives us line of sight down a series of related ideas]:
    Idea A -> idea B. Idea B -> idea C.

Last words

They finish with an important caveat:

Don’t try to apply these principles as you write new sentences but to revising those you’ve already written. If you follow the advice here as you draft, you may tie yourself in knots. Save your concern for revising sentences until you have sentences to revise.

Now go and do likewise!

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