Avoid Ambiguity in Your Nonfiction

Today’s post applies mainly to academic, prescriptive, or expository writing. Narrative nonfiction, especially memoir, can leave room for ambiguity. But if your book is meant to instruct, it needs to be clear.

The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.—Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

The Curse of Knowledge manifests in various ways. One is that if you understand a subject thoroughly, you may find yourself unable to describe it in a way that’s meaningful to a newbie.

Explanations are clear and unambiguous.

When I was learning to knit, I got the hang of the knit stitch quickly enough. But my mother’s explanation of the purl stitch was ambiguous. “It’s like a knit stitch, only backward.”

I was knitting through the back loop (which is not a purl) for years before I found a book with clear instructions for forming the purl stitch. The clear and unambiguous instructions require a lengthy description and some illustrations.

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Illustration by Dmitry • Fotolia

When I wrote about viewpoint for the Reedsy blog, we soon realized that the topic is too complex to be explained in a single blog post. They allowed me two posts so the topic could be explained more clearly. Be willing to use more words and take more time to explain things thoroughly.

Depending on the skill level of your intended readership, you may need to break instructions down into discrete steps. A general-market text on investing, for example, should not simply advise people to pay attention to the price-to-earnings ratio of a stock. It would define the term, explain how it’s calculated, and give some examples of the role it plays in financial analysis.

The best way to determine whether your explanations are clear enough is to recruit advance readers who are not experts in your field, and ask for their opinion.

Information leads readers to appropriate conclusions.

It’s not enough to simply pile on information and statistics. You want to chain your information together in a way that helps readers draw conclusions. Sometimes this means drawing their attention to the connections between separate data points. Often conclusions can be drawn from a bare exposition of the evidence, but it never hurts to give your readers some guidance.

Note that this does not mean that you draw your conclusion first and then amass the data to support it. Conclusions should be drawn from data, not the other way around. Occasionally, you’ll run into a topic on which experts disagree. For example, I’m currently in the midst of a Bible study on the book of Revelation. Theologians disagree on the interpretation of that book. The best books on the topic present all opinions and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions.

Case studies and anecdotes are used to highlight conclusions, not as filler.

I have read several books in which, well after conclusions have been drawn, the author continues to recount case studies or anecdotes that restate what has already been shown. This always strikes me as a blatant attempt to meet some arbitrary length requirement imposed by a publisher.

If the various anecdotes actually shed new light on the subject, or view it from useful new angles, then include them. But if they only repeat what has already been shown, they may be disposable.

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