Clarity, Simplicity, Elegance

Clarity, Simplicity, Elegance–these synonyms are used interchangeably to refer to readability–i.e., the extent to which an audience can follow a rhetor’s purpose, thesis, and organization.


Many global, rhetorical issues play a supersized role in whether an audience finds a text to be readable, such as

  1. Has the rhetor correctly assessed the audience’s understanding of pertinent scholarly conversations surrounding the topic?
  2. Has the rhetor stripped away superfluous information and remained focused on a thesis?
  3. Has the rhetor organized the information logically?
  4. Does the document design, visual rhetoric, medium, and genre empowr a rhetor to keep the audience’s focus on the purpose and thesis?

Additionally, a rhetor’s use of language affects readability:

  1. The use of active voice rather than passive voice tends to aid reading comprehension.
  2. The use of an effective subject rather than a vague one ais readability.

What is an effective subject?

Some writing genres–e.g., personal reflection, journal writing, autobiography–ask you to focus on a sentence’s subject. That means you would write a sentence about someone or something performing an action. When writing in a genre that uses active voice, sentences are easier to read when the subject is actually doing something to the rest of the sentence. Readers respond better to brief, concrete subjects more than they do to longer ones.

What makes my subject ineffective?

Ineffective subjects make the reader work harder. English sentences typically begin with the “doer” and then move into the “thing being done.” Consider these sentences:

The meeting was ruined by the lack of organization.

vs

The lack of organization ruined the meeting.

In the first one, “the meeting” is the subject receiving the action of being ruined. This sentence moves the action to the end, forcing the reader to wait for the rest of the information and remember the subject. “Was ruined” is an example of passive voice.

Using passive voice is not always a bad thing. Sometimes you will want to move the action to the end of the sentence, especially if you want to de-emphasize the subject. Consider this situation:

“Mistakes were made,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “The dishwasher was not emptied.”

By choosing passive voice, the speaker in the above situation avoids accusing anyone specific. This can be useful, not just for getting the dishwasher emptied without confrontation. Some disciplines use passive voice by default, because their focus is on objects, not subjects.

Now look at a more complicated example:

Tracing the changes in this complex and evermore controversial issue over time allows researchers to make important recommendations.

In this sentence, the subject is “Tracing the changes in this complex and ever controversial issue over time,” a very long and wordy idea. The idea doesn’t do anything–it merely “allows” the researchers to do something else.

To make the subject of the sentence more effective, choose a brief, concrete subject like “researchers.”

The researchers will make important recommendations by tracing the changes in this complex and controversial issue over time.