Clear thinking, clear writing

“The problem is to teach ourselves to think, and the writing will take care of itself,” observed author and journalist Christopher Morley.

Morley made that observation in his 1923 book Inward Ho! and, despite the passage of time, his insight remains relevant in the first decade of the 21st century. Writing with clarity requires thinking with clarity; thinking clearly is generally reflected in clear prose (although clear thinkers can sometimes struggle to express themselves.)

What do we mean by clarity of thought, or (perhaps less poetically) clear thinking? Also called “critical thinking,” it is, as Sharon Begley of the Wall Street Journal has explained, the ability “to evaluate evidence, to tell fact from opinion, to see holes in an argument, to tell whether cause and effect has been established and to spot illogic.”

Clear thinking is founded on inquiry, observation, and reasoning. Confronted with a problem to solve, or an issue to consider, the clear thinker gathers evidence, evaluates and analyzes it, considers the alternatives, makes a judgement, and reaches a well-reasoned conclusion. Throughout this step-by-step process, the clear thinker asks questions at every stage. Is the information accurate? Does it come from a reliable source? Is it sufficient in depth and breadth? Are there alternative explanations? Has bias crept in? Is there enough known to reach a conclusion? The purpose is to get as close to the truth as is humanly possible (while recognizing that some things are unknowable).

In a sense, the clear thinker takes on the role of detective or investigative reporter: relying on empirical data, employing both induction (reasoning from specific observations) and deduction (reasoning from general propositions) before arriving at a decision, a solution, or a conclusion. Humans have always been fascinated by mysteries and their investigation; from Hamlet to Sherlock Holmes to CSI: Miami, we have been intrigued by the puzzle-solving process. Clear thinking employs those same logical techniques. Scientists, physicians, social scientists, historians, journalists, intelligence analysts, lawyers, and managers turn to them when they confront intellectual challenges in their field of work.

Examining assumptions

One distinctive quality found in clear thinkers is their willingness to examine their own initial assumptions and biases. Clear thinkers recognize that their own background, education, and prejudices can lead to blind-spots, as can relying on conventional wisdom. They strive to overcome these barriers to well-founded reasoning by remaining alert to self-delusion and groupthink.

Moreover, clear thinkers must summon the courage to abandon prior opinions or theories when the evidence doesn’t support them. When journalist David Halberstam arrived in Saigon in the early 1960s, he was convinced the U.S. was right to intervene in the ongoing civil conflict; before he left in 1964, Halberstam’s reporting had led him to conclude that the U.S. was making a mistake and was losing the war—a conclusion he shared with his readers, much to the dismay of the government. Historian Allen Weinstein began his research on the Alger Hiss case believing that Hiss was innocent of charges of spying for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s, only to change his mind after reviewing the evidence. Weinstein let the facts shape his understanding, rather than forcing the facts to fit his preferred theory.

Intellectual honesty also demands acknowledging when the evidence is weak or fragmentary, or when there are plausible alternative explanations, or when something remains obscure. Clear thinking considers the accuracy, relevance, and depth of the data in question; it calls for assessing arguments on their merits; it means arriving at the most logical conclusion based on the available facts.

The clear thinker believes that the world, with all its ambiguities and complexity, can be understood. While experts may have deep technical knowledge on a topic (say, for example, global warming or genetic engineering), a generalist nonetheless can grasp the underlying facts and concepts, and assess competing claims using the tools of clear thinking. The clear thinker looks to break down complicated ideas into more manageable components, and to examine and understand these components. As author, lawyer and journalist Jack Fuller has argued, “The principle of elegance, after all, assumes that the truth has a simple beauty, which ought to be communicable.”

Clear writing

Communicating the results of clear thinking, as Christopher Morley suggested, becomes easier for the writer who starts with a logical, organized argument supported by the facts. There is a natural, persuasive flow to this argument and, consequently, a reader is more likely to understand and be convinced by what is written.

Clear writing founded on clear thinking will be direct, organized, and concise. It will avoid stridency or complexity; it will be free of jargon and inflated language; it will favor concreteness over abstraction. Clear writers write to express, not impress.

Yet the clear writer does not have to sacrifice aesthetics in pursuit of clarity: active verbs, varied sentence lengths, vivid descriptions, and precise language are all part of clear writing and can be shaped into a distinctive, appealing style. Clear writing, like clean design in architecture, can offer both functionality and grace.

This essay has also been published through the At Work Newswire.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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