16.2: Revising for Clarity: Who Did What to Whom?
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What makes a complex line of thinking easy to follow? The tricks of cohesion and coherence, discussed in Chapter 6, are a big help. Williams and Bizup offer another key point. They explain that readers experience writing as clear when the “character” of a sentence is also its grammatical subject and the key “action” a grammatical verb. They provide this fanciful example:3
Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf’s jump out from behind a tree caused her fright.
Grammatically, the subject of the first part is “a walk through the woods,” and the verb is “taking place”. The character, though, is obviously Little Red Riding Hood and the action is walking. A much more straightforward version—“As Little Red Riding Hood walked through the woods”—makes the character the subject and the action the key verb. That example goes out of its way to be silly, but consider this example from a website offering free college papers:4
Another event that connects the colonist and the English together is the event of a hated King in England trying to take away freedom and go back to the old ways. The idea of how much power the King had struck Parliament. After that, the Parliament and the people made the King sign the Magna Carta, which limits the amount of power the King has. The Magna Carta also affected the rights of the American colonies. It practically took away all relationships between the King and the colonies. After the relationship was broken, America broke off from England.
Apparently, the author is claiming that the colonists (in the 1700s?) pushed back against the power of the English crown in a manner similar to the Parliamentarians in 1215 (after having apparently been “struck” by an “idea” of “how much power the King had”). Grammatically, the subjects are an “event” and an “idea” rather than the characters, colonists, the king, and Parliament. The third sentence is refreshingly straightforward in structure (though vague on details). The fifth and sixth sentences are fairly straightforward, but also incredibly vague: the Magna Carta predated the American colonies by at least 400 years5; how does that document relate to the American Revolution? The last sentence essentially says that after the relationship was broken, the relationship was broken. If the author were to rewrite the passage to make the grammatical subjects match the characters, he or she would be prompted to clarify what exactly the king, the Parliament, the English populace, and the American colonists did (and to who), something which the author of the above passage may not actually understand. This example illustrates how clarifying “who did what to whom” for the reader also makes writers clarify it for themselves. Writing clearly involves thinking clearly, and clear rigorous thinking is why your professors assign you writing in the first place.
While the Magna Carta example is comically bad, here’s one that is more or less logical but would still benefit from greater clarity:
IgE-dependent allergic hypersensitivity reactions such as allergic asthma and food allergy involve mast cells which are typically regarded as troublesome cells as a result. Further, the allergic sensitization-processes also involves a role for mast cells. Recent findings show that their functionality is not only pro-inflammatory, but can on the contrary have suppressive or immunomodulatory effects in allergic inflammation.
The above passage isn’t a terrible slog, and it’s fairly clear that the whole passage is about mast cells. But here’s a version of the same passage—the real version as it were—which demonstrates that the passage feels a lot clearer when mast cells, the “characters” driving the narrative, are also the grammatical subject of the sentence and the referent for the key verbs:6
Mast cells are typically regarded as troublesome cells due to their prominent role in IgE-dependent allergic hypersensitivity reactions such as allergic asthma and food allergy. Further, it seems that mast cells are also able to play an additional role in the allergic sensitization-processes. Recent findings show that mast cell functionality is not only pro-inflammatory, but can on the contrary have suppressive or immunomodulatory effects in allergic inflammation.
Both versions of the passage are consistently about mast cells, but the second version makes that consistency much more obvious to readers as mast cells are the main character of every sentence. That clear consistency allows us to devote more of our brain power to recalling technical terms (like immunomodulatory) and comprehending the key ideas. That makes it both easier and more interesting to read.
To further illustrate the principle, let’s take a nicely straightforward passage and rewrite it so that the characters are objects (rather than subjects) and the actions are nouns7 (rather than verbs). Here’s the nicely clear original:8
What most people really feel nostalgic about has little to do with the internal structure of 1950s families. It is the belief that the 1950s provided a more family-friendly economic and social environment, an easier climate in which to keep kids on the straight and narrow, and above all, a greater feeling of hope for a family’s long-term future, especially for its young.
In these two sentences, the character is a belief rather than a person or thing. However, the passage is still clear to the reader because it keeps the character consistent and explains what that character does (creates nostalgia) to who (people at large). Imagine if the author wrote this instead:
People feel nostalgic not about the internal structure of 1950s families. Rather, the beliefs about how the 1950s provided a more family-friendly economic and social environment, an easier climate in which to keep kids on the straight and narrow, and above all, a greater feeling of hope for a family’s long-term future (especially for its young) are what lead to those nostalgic feelings.
This second version says substantially the same thing, but it’s tedious to read because the character changes abruptly from “people” to “beliefs” (which works against cohesion) and one has to get to the end of the sentence to learn how these beliefs fit in. The key point is this: one of the best things you can do to revise for greater clarity is to recast a passage so that the characters are the grammatical subjects and the key actions are the verbs.