Reading an old blog post of mine, I spotted an ambiguity in the writing. I’d checked the text several times, but the fuzziness still slipped by. It can be difficult to know when our own writing is unclear because we know what we intended to say.
Oh well. At least the mistake inspired me to write today’s blog post. So today I want to talk about fixing ambiguous writing.
Writing is unclear when its meaning can be understood in two ways. In the example below, who has the bruised eye and which man is John?
“I met the father and son outside the train station. His eye was still badly bruised from the boxing match. John waved at me cheerfully.”
We can clear this up by rewriting it.
“I met John and his father outside the train station. Although his eye was still badly bruised from the boxing match, John waved at me cheerfully.”
That’s much better but some readers might wonder if John was waving cheerfully despite his father’s injury. Let’s try again.
“I met John and his father outside the train station. John waved at me cheerfully. I saw his eye was still badly bruised from the boxing match.”
Readers will understand that John has the bruised eye because he is the subject of the previous sentence. To completely avoid misunderstandings we could write the following.
“I met a cheerful John and his father outside the train station. The younger man’s eye was still badly bruised from the boxing match but he was the first to wave at me.”
If I made that final “cheerful John” change to someone else’s writing it would be a risky editing decision. John could wave cheerfully without feeling cheerful. I would need to check this with the writer.
My blog post
Now look at this messy paragraph. It’s the one from my blog post. Am I ashamed about being rude? Or am I ashamed to be seen writing in a coffee shop?
“I hate it when I’m writing in a coffee shop and someone comes over to chat (1). I can’t tell them to go away because that would be rude (2). The shame I’d feel would ruin my concentration anyway (3). Feeling annoyed at the interruption isn’t much better (4).”
The shame in sentence 3 is due to the rudeness in sentence 2. But some readers skip forward due to attention difficulties, lack of time or boredom. Other readers assume that some sentences are less important than others. Readers could connect sentence 3 with sentence 1 and think I’m ashamed about writing in a coffee shop.
We can make the meaning clear by merging sentences 2 and 3. That will stop readers from ignoring 2 entirely. (I think it also helps to merge 4.)
“I can’t say ‘go away’ because my shameful rudeness would ruin my concentration almost as much as their interruption had.”
“It’d be shamefully rude to tell them to go away, and would disturb my concentration even more.”
“I could tell them to buzz off but I can’t concentrate on my writing when I’ve been shamefully unfriendly.”
As this is my own writing, I can make big changes to clean up ambiguity. If I were editing someone else’s writing I’d have to be much more cautious.
In this blog post I have shown how merging sentences and rearranging content are ways to clean up ambiguity.
Recognising ambiguity in our own writing requires that we step into the reader’s shoes. We have to predict their comprehension and reading processes. I find it helps to read my own writing in a very literal way. Reading literally lets me pretend I don’t know what I intended to say.
Recognising the causes of ambiguity helps us to avoid it in the first place.
The mistake in the bruised John passage is an example of a writer who doesn’t think about “who, where, what?” questions. If you struggle with those, take a free MOOC in journalism. I promise it will help you.
The mistake in my blog occurred because I wrote as if I were speaking. Spoken English is ambiguous because it’s supported by tone, pace and gesture. Long and short pauses in spoken English are also very important. My bad habit is assuming readers can hear my vocal tone and spoken pauses.
How do you tackle ambiguity in your own writing? Have you identified any interesting causes of ambiguity? I’d love to hear your ideas. You are welcome to leave a comment in the section beneath this blog post.