“And the Greatest of These Is Clarity”:
Clarity’s Worth to a Contemporary Style Pedagogy
In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, a law that demands federal agencies deploy “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” (Plain Language, n.d., para. 1). The 2011 Executive Order 13563 requires something similar—that government regulations are “accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand” (Plain Language, n.d., para. 1). These documents have in common the drive to simplify, to make clear, to make plain. And they define such clarity in terms of the public’s understanding. But how do these documents calculate what the public will understand? To what degree are these seemingly objective criteria for evaluating communication actually subjective measures of “good” communication? And moreover, what does any of this have to do with student writing?
This preoccupation with clarity is not limited to governmental affairs; our first- year (FY) composition classrooms are equally attentive to it as a criterion for evaluating good writing and are just as lax about unpacking how “clarity” is defined or even what values we unwittingly espouse when we use the term. For example, a cursory glance through BYU’s Writing 150 text Writing and Rhetoric Supplemental Guide (McInelly & Jackson, 2014), which contains the grading rubrics for each of the course’s major papers, shows us the following (all italics mine): One of the introduction’s learning outcomes is to “write coherent and unified texts . . . [and] clear theses” (p. 2). The opinion editorial rubric states, “An ‘A’ editorial demonstrates the writer’s awareness of his/her rhetorical situation by clearly defining a timely issue” (p. 15). The rhetorical analysis demands that “the writer creates an appropriate ethos . . . [and] concludes with clear closure, reinforcing the claims (without rote repetition) and suggesting further implications” (p. 29). Here clarity means something specific and evidently good; claims should be reinforced and further implications suggested. But then we find that while “the ‘A’ analysis” makes “an insightful claim,” the B’s is only “clear.” Most often, we find that clarity applies to the language itself: “The writer creates an appropriate ethos through diction and style, with varied sentence lengths and clear, concise sentences and diction” (p. 29), “the writer has a clear, arguable thesis,” and “diction is clear, concise, and precise”—all wording that suggests concision and preciseness are distinct from, and not merely qualifiers of, clarity (p. 49).
Evidently, clarity as an assessment criterion is ubiquitous (see Barnard 2010, pp. 435– 436, for a more comprehensive list), but what do we mean when we use it? We seem to think its definition is self-evident or objective, but in fact, our own use of the term is unclear—sometimes vague and sometimes contradictory. Do we mean clarity as a synonym for concision or for preciseness or for correctness? And is it the opposite of obfuscation or over-inflation? We seem to think of clarity as some stylistic feature, and if so, does it function independently of subject matter? Or does it inhere in content? Is it the bare minimum to which student texts should aspire? Or is it the mark of excellent writing? Does clarity mean a language free from the ornamentation of figurative language or complex syntax? And finally, who decides what is clear or unclear?
These are the kinds of questions that preoccupy contemporary scholarship about style and clarity. Some scholars, like Star Medzerian (2010), are concerned that the decline in teaching clarity has not impeded teachers from grading for clarity. Most scholars, like Nils Clausson (to whom I owe credit for my title; 2011) and Ian Barnard (2010), agree that when clarity is used as an assessment criterion, it is most often thought of as a stylistic feature. However, many worry that no matter its definition, “assumptions about clarity’s obviousness, objectivity, and innocuousness in fact conceal . . . ideological work” (Barnard, 2010, p. 434), specifically a conflation of clarity with honesty and clarity’s ties to hegemony. And many other scholars, such as Rebecca Moore Howard (2005), are anxious that by privileging clarity, teachers run the risk of fostering politically irresponsible students.
As I trace the history of composition studies’ waning interest in style, including clarity, I will unpack clarity’s problematic (and often contradictory) ideologies and advance a style pedagogy that recognizes “clear” prose (or the “plain style” of which clarity is, as Howard explains, a hallmark) and the values it endorses as just one among many stylistic decision students may choose. I will argue that by teaching students to recognize the importance of context in making such stylistic decisions, students will benefit from what Howard calls “socially responsible . . . sentence-level instruction” (p. 56), something missing from contemporary composition studies.
The History of Clarity as a Stylistic Feature
As we discuss what made clarity and style drop out of the composition conversation, I will call attention to the ideological splits in composition studies between privileging form over content and product over process. These dichotomies and the way their hierarchies have reversed in composition studies will become relevant to us as we further discuss their implications for clarity and the future of style pedagogy.
Robert J. Connors (2010) explains that style had a golden age of sentence-based rhetoric following the inception of Francis Christiansen’s generative sentence, the emergence of imitation exercises, and the publication of a slew of studies on transformational sentence-combining. But curiously, style as a subject of scholarly interest fell into disfavor sometime in the early 1980s. Connors attributes this decline to the rise of three things: anti-formalism, anti-behaviorism, and anti-empiricism.
Anti-formalism, or “the idea that any pedagogy based in form rather than in content was suspect” (Connors, 2010, p. 93), developed in part from composition studies’ early ties to linguistics. Early composition instruction embraced linguistics’ interest in textual stylistics because textual stylistics reinforced composition’s emphasis on the avoidance of error and formal features of a given text. “It demonstrate[d] the heights to which error-free prose can aspire (in literary texts), the better to demonstrate the depths to which error-ridden prose can sink (in student texts),” says Howard (2005, p. 44). One of textualist composition pedagogy’s primary goals was to help students cultivate “the plain style and its attendant emphasis on clarity” (p. 45). But as Howard explains, “clarity” for 19th-century American composition classes was no longer only one of “the four qualities of a persuasive style identified by classical rhetoricians such as Quintillian: correctness, clearness, appropriateness, and ornament” (p. 44). Instead, clarity was the sole indicator of good style. “Composition classes,” Howard says, “demanded clarity in student writing so that teachers could enact a Cartesian scrutiny, dividing students’ arguments into their syntactic components, examining the veracity of each component, and then evaluating the whole” (pp. 44–45). Clarity, in other words, was conceived of as the form in which the ideas were presented, something that could be separated from the content and broken down into discrete, analyzable parts—hence its easy relationship with linguistics, which was continuously breaking down discourse into “the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the essay” (Connors, 2010, p. 93).
But as composition studies began to emerge in the 1960s as its own discipline, it sought to legitimize itself by challenging its own scholarly roots in linguistics “not only as insufficient but as potentially hegemonic” (Connors, 2010, p. 45) in its privileging of literary texts and censure of student texts. Composition studies felt that in order to move instruction beyond merely correcting student errors and into the realm of content, “it had to move beyond the sentence” (p. 47).
The anti-formalist critique also contributed to the heightened interest in invention, since scholars felt that teaching form alone could not generate quality content. In a 1985 article (a piece published roughly two years after Connors noted the steep drop in sentence- level pedagogy), Elizabeth Rankin (2010) tracked what she saw as a disturbing trend toward dismissing style instruction in composition studies. Rankin ascribed part of style’s decline to the popularity of invention, which came into vogue in the 70s and 80s as a revival of classical rhetoric. Invention satisfied instructional coverage of some similar features of writing that style did—only better, critics of style said, since invention concerned itself more with generating topics than with correcting error, more with process and content than with product and form (p. 240).
This deepening split in composition scholarship between privileging content or privileging form is important for another reason. The process movement and its accompanying focus on revision underscored what Rankin (2010) explains, citing a 1980 article by John T. Gage, was another reason for the waning interest in style—the difficulty of even talking about it. Gage (1980) described the monistic nature of style but the difficulty of teaching style other than dualistically, especially in a process-based pedagogy. Said Gage, “By stressing revision, we are advocating a separation between the way a thing is said, in its unrevised form, and the ideas themselves, unclothed, that is, in words” (p. 620). We will shortly return to this complication and the hierarchal split it engenders.
Ultimately, the ideologies driving sentence-level pedagogy proved too unstable to stand up to the barrage of scholarly critique. But as Connors (2010) points out, “the loss of all defense of formalism has left some curious vacuums in the middle of our teaching” (p. 103) —like attention to style altogether. Today, there is a dearth of contemporary scholarship from which composition teachers can draw to create effective, non-hegemonic strategies for teaching sentence-level pedagogy. But despite this lack, we still insist on grading style, and particularly clarity, as I noted above. As Medzerian (2010) recently observed, “Style is either something we name but do not value or value but cannot name” (p. 187). The problem with such implicit forms of instruction, she continues, is that it “leaves us with ‘nothing to fall back on’ when evaluating student styles, causing us to rely on first impressions rather than contextualizing our responses within students’ own stylistic choices. As a result, style can be caught between conflicting values: those communicated to students through our commentary and those we actually endorse” (pp. 186–87).
In our implicit style instruction (read: grading rubrics), we endorse stylistic qualities leftover from the formalist era (read: clarity), even though we may enjoy quite different styles (like literary ones) more. Such antiquated and problematic conceptions of style are often transmitted through handbooks formed without taking into account the critiques composition studies launched against style pedagogy. “And these handbooks, most of which descend from Strunk and White, are almost unanimous in their narrow identification of style with clarity,” says Clausson (2011, p. 302). Take, for example, two of the most popular handbooks for writing today (each of which was on the syllabuses for two undergraduate writing courses I took), Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace and William Zinsser’s On Writing. Both are still in high circulation; each was originally published more than 30 years ago, the former having been originally published in 1981 and the latter being in its 12th edition with a cover that brags, “More Than One Million Copies Sold.”
Williams, ever a proponent of clarity and the plain style, seeks to identify the grammatical and mechanical features of a sentence what makes one linguistic construction “dense and difficult” and another “clear and direct” (p. 7) to readers. His project conceives of style as separate from, but complementary to, content. Williams speaks of style as something that reflects on the writer’s character and competence, something that generates readers’ trust when it’s good, but demonstrates a writer’s incompetence or intention to deceive when it’s bad. Clarity and concision, which both characterize Good Style, are placed in opposition to density, inflatedness, and obfuscation, which characterize Bad Style.
Zinsser takes up a similar conception of style. For him, the decisive characteristics of good style are simplicity and freedom from clutter, both objective features that Zinsser explains cannot be taught because they develop from some combination of the writer’s clear thinking and personality. Only through simple and clutter-free writing can a writer captivate the reader, who always has, Zinsser explains, a short attention span (although Zinsser does not explain to what extent clarity is determined by the reader, treating “simplicity” and “clutter-free” as objective categories). Zinsser analyzes selections from nonfiction writers to illustrate the merits of clear prose and the detriments of cluttered prose, describing each selection in terms of grammar and syntax, but more often elusive qualities like “clear thinking.” He specifically targets politicians, administrators, lawyers, academics, and the like, who he says frequently produce turgid prose on purpose to confuse, or on accident because they do not think clearly about the subjects they are writing about.
These handbooks reveal a few of the ideas about clarity and style perpetuated in today’s composition classroom, about what the dearth of contemporary style scholarship has left us with.
First, they tell us that clarity is the hallmark of excellent writing. Period. No other style will do.
Second, they tell us clarity is a kind of “communicative efficiency” or “readability” a direct sort of “encoding and decoding” (Howard, 2005, p. 50). This mindset places the burden of ultimate assessment of whether clarity is present squarely on the reader.
Third, clarity’s emphasis on communicative efficiency also helps us see some of the values clarity espouses and the ideologies driving those values. This emphasis tells us something about the way clarity conceives of the relationship between form and content: that the best presentation directly correlates to content, regardless of intent or genre. It tells us that stratagems for cultivating clear style are rooted in the notion that style is the clothes ideas wear and that the more direct the correlation between form and content, the more honest and honorable the writer.
In a moment, we will unpack these values further, but I would first like to present Howard (2005)’s proposal for the future of style pedagogy. Although these sorts of handbooks still champion a formalist approach to style, Howard proposes a different sort of approach to style pedagogy. These handbooks champion a pedagogy rooted in textual stylistics, which “teaches style as a relationship among writer, reader, and text, in which the writer crafts the text so that readers can easily decode information” (p. 50). But textual stylistics is an approach Howard—and the scholarship that led to style’s decline 25 years ago—finds problematic. Howard’s description of her problems with this pedagogy (which she pejoratively titles “fossil pedagogy”) deserves to be quoted at length:
The textualist composition scholarship of style now functions as fossil pedagogy in composition classrooms—pedagogy focused on the plain style and its hallmark, clarity; pedagogy whose stylistic principles are derived from analysis of literary texts and that thereby positions student writing in negative contrast to literary genius . . .; pedagogy that does not position students as critical writers in complex (and sometimes oppressive) social, political, and cultural situations. (p. 50)
Howard proposes that to correct the damages wrought by a textualist approach to style pedagogy, we should approach style pedagogy contextually. “From a contextualist perspective,” says Howard, “style is ‘an effect produced in, by and through the interaction between text and reader.’ Style is not a feature of text, and it is not the vehicle whereby the reader can correctly decode the sovereign writer’s intended meaning” (p. 53). Contextual stylistics would teach students to identify and analyze the context of the communication, not only in texts they read, but in those they write. By doing so, teachers of contextual stylistics would help “make explicit to and with . . . students the ways in which linguistic and textual standards function to naturalize social divisions that are in fact based on race, class, gender, sexual preference, and the like” (p. 48). Further, “it can become a way for students to understand their own stylistic choices and options, and to see how those choices and options participate in, are constrained by, and have the potential to affect the sociocultural contexts in which they are deployed” (p. 55). Her system of contextual stylistics not only acknowledges the interdependency of form and content, but also offers a form of style instruction that breaks down and asks students to investigate hegemonies between teacher and student, literary writing and student writing, and readers and students to produce more social responsibility for the hegemonies in which the students might unwittingly participate in their own stylistic decisions.
We now return to our unpacking of clarity’s values, this time armed with a contextualist approach that we will use to explicate clarity as one stylistic option of many available to students. Up to this point, we have only nodded to the kinds of ideologies informing clarity’s citation, but now we will make them explicit. To some degree, the values invoked are determined by the genre to which clarity is applied. But for students, who for the most part are taught expository writing and whose expository prose is assessed in terms of clarity, clarity implies the following virtues.
First, clarity is linked to objectivity, transparency, and neutrality. The assumption behind the possibility of clarity is “the notion that reality is fixed, knowable, and rational, and that discourse, to be valid, need only to conform to that reality” (Rankin, 2010, p. 240). Clear language merely transmits independently existent ideas or truths, separate from, extant prior to the mode of communication.
Second, clarity is equated with honesty, a characteristic similar to the objectivity of the first. If the character of the writer is good and clear-thinking, his or her writing will be clear. But if it is dishonest and wrong-headed, the writing will likewise be turgid or deliberately obscure.
Third, clarity reflects the writer’s humility. Such is the writer’s desire not to draw attention to his or her own style that the prose is unnoticeable, translucent; personality should shrink into the background. This is reflected in Strunk and White’s injunction: “‘Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. . . .Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style’” (Clausson, 2011, p. 302).
Fourth, clarity assumes “symmetry between reader and writer” (Clausson, 2011, p. 306). Because whatever ideas are expressed on the page are unbiased, factual, logical, and cohesive, readers can easily draw their own conclusions from those facts and do not necessarily need the writer to draw the connection explicitly (though the writer should), as would be needed if the presentation were a series of emotional or subjective observations.
Finally, clarity demands that ideas be presented in the most “normal” way, springing up organically from the content.
Each of these qualities is related, and there is a great deal of overlap in what I have presented as discrete characteristics. But each of them illustrates the contradictory and problematic ideological implications inherent in clarity. First, each demonstrates the paradox of the way clarity conceives of the relationship between form and content, between style and subject matter. On the one hand, those who privilege clarity assume that the best writing is that which uses language that matches most closely to the already extant idea, an idea present not just in the writer’s head but in some realm of Truth, where Objective Facts reside.
On the other hand, clarity assumes form and content are so inextricably bound that the form reflects on the writer’s character, such that if the character is good and clear- thinking, the writing will be clear, and if the character is dishonest or obtuse, the writing will likewise be turgid or deliberately obscured. Clarity’s values imply that language is only a tool for a communication, thus betraying its embrace of “a culture that emphasizes brevity, superficiality[,] . . . commodification[,] . . . efficiency, and utilitarianism” (Barnard, 2010, p. 442). Finally, clarity reinforces its own utilitarianism and normative power by obscuring its normative processes, by which it makes these connections between writer and content and between form and content seem natural and unquestionable and inevitable, to neutralize the dominant discourse. Writers who use a clear style thus take advantage, if unwittingly, of clarity’s capacity to make (and history of making) even the most duplicitous ideas or insidious hegemonies seem natural. As Barnard explains, “The very proponents of clarity often use strikingly ‘clear’ language to convey arguments that are convoluted, misleading, and enigmatic” (p. 440).
Back to the Plain Writing Act (Plain Language, n.d.) that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Having unpacked clarity’s ideologies, we see in it now a set of similar values— an endeavor to seem not to be duplicitous, but instead objective, transparent, honorable To seem harmless, approachable, accessible. To give the appearance of neutrality, to make the documents seem a pure stream of information, undefiled by subjectivity and unburdened by feelings. To show that the system is natural, normal, unchangeable. Because the average American has come to see clarity as virtuous, to privilege “giving it to us straight” as honorable, for the government to employ the plain style is to inspire confidence in a system that is not necessarily always good or right or noble and is certainly not organic or unalterable.
This is the kind of contextualist reading we can encourage our students to apply not only to the interpretation of texts, but to their own crafting of them. I believe it is appropriate to include clarity as an assessment criterion, a measure of skill and writing dexterity, as BYU has done. But we should discuss it as one kind of style among many—one stylistic option available to them, and not The Ideal, the one and only Mark of Excellent Writing. Otherwise, we are not reinforcing the idea that writing and revision are composed of decisions and that each decision should be made with rhetorical context and ideological baggage in mind. Rather than passing off clarity as a self-evident and neutral criterion, we ought to unpack the ideological implications of our own assessment criteria and the hegemonies we potentially reinforce (like teacher dominance, privileging of formalism, the university’s corporate control, etc.). Our students can then determine to what degree they want to communicate or mitigate or acknowledge those values in their own writing. As Medzerian (2010) explains, “Assessing style is teaching style” (p. 187). We can teach a socially responsible style by encouraging students to analyze our own assessment criteria—like clarity. After all, as Clausson (2011) argues, “attracting attention to itself is what style is all about” (p. 305).
Barnard, I. (2010). The Ruse of Clarity. CCC, 61(3), 434–451.
Clausson, N. (2011). Clarity, George Orwell, and the Pedagogy of Prose Style; or, How Not to Teach “Shooting the Elephant.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 11(2), 301–323.
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