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Jenny Baker
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Writing to Avoid Confusion: A Four-Level Framework With Examples

./Steven Toaddy, Louisiana Tech University

In written communication, we generally seek to maximize clarity while minimizing wordiness and to maximize reader engagement while minimizing the amount of cognitive effort the reader needs to spend to understand our writing. If we match these various attributes to our reader’s needs and to the level of criticality of each of these attributes, we can be effective in our communication. If we don’t, however, we may lose reader attention early or in the middle of our writing, communicate imprecisely, and/or fail to get the core aspects of our message across. This article is designed to help you—a creator of written communication at any level but especially a student who is still developing their writing style in our field—organize thoughts in your writing in a way that may maximize avoidance of all forms of confusion on the part of your reader, in support of the cognitive-effort-minimization effort mentioned above. The purpose of avoiding confusion is to help your reader focus on, avoid distraction from, and understand the intended content of your writing. This article does so by presenting a four-level framework of writing styles, explaining how each may lead to or avoid confusion for the reader, and giving brief purpose-built examples of each of these four levels of writing. When you are done reading this article, you should be able to define each of the four levels of writing, to categorize examples of writing into each of the four described levels, and thus to assess the likely degree of confusion that a reader may experience when reading the passage in question. To achieve the article’s initial, broader design of improving writing, it will be necessary for you to engage in additional practice with writing within these levels, evaluating where your writing falls among these levels, and reflecting on your beliefs about the acceptability of reader confusion; if you choose to use higher levels of writing in your own work, you should then be able to do so.

The Four Levels

These levels are organized such that higher levels are associated with higher quality writing, as defined by lesser amounts of confusion on the part of the reader. Note that some topics about which we are inclined to write are particularly counterintuitive and/or challenging to understand; this model only aims to avoid the confusion that can be attributed to organization of thoughts rather than to complexity or difficulty of concepts.

Level 0: Unmet Expectations

This level of writing is not given a positive-integer designation because it does not deserve the dignity of one. It is included here only to remind us that the writing that we encounter could always be worse and to set the baseline against which we compare higher levels, which can themselves still be confusing but for different reasons.

Definition: Level-0 writing causes the reader to develop expectations for what will come next in a document but then does not deliver—immediately, soon thereafter, or ever—on those expectations. It is the nonjoking equivalent of this (https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/slides.png):

How to identify Level-0 writing: If you find yourself thinking, “Wait, what did the author mean by their reference to [topic x]?” immediately followed by “Wait a minute; the author is just moving on—whatever happened to [topic X]?”, and then, when you get to the end of the document and still can say “Wait, the author never went anywhere with [topic X],” you are likely experiencing Level-0 writing.

Examples of Level-0 writing: Because this level of writing is characterized by the absence of a feature—namely, meeting reader’s expectation—a suitable full example would need to entail an entire written product (characterized by the lack of follow-up information) rather than an illustrative excerpt. What follows are thus just the initial sentences in which the reader’s to-be-unmet expectation may be generated (see italics), followed by a note that the expectation will not be met within the document1:

  • “Much of the research in this domain agrees on the hypothesized underlying mechanism, though recent work has flatly contradicted that thinking.” [At no point later does the author cite or discuss that contradictory work, nor do they evaluate the relative merits of the competing schools of thought.]
  • “The reader is likely familiar with the five dimensions of personality contained in the big-five structure—Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—but few are aware of the next three dimensions.” [At no point later does the author name the additional hypothetical dimensions.]

Level 1: Letting the Reader Sit With Their Confusion, Then Resolving It

This level of writing, like the two that follow it, contains all of the information that is needed to sate a reader’s curiosity. The amount of time between curiosity arising and curiosity being satisfied is the differentiator of these three levels.

Definition: Level-1 writing contains a statement that establishes an expectation on the part of the reader and then fails to meet that expectation immediately, leading to confusion and/or distraction for the reader. The author meets the expectation later in the document but not in the same sentence or in the next sentence.       

How to identify Level-1 writing: If, as with Level-0 writing, you find yourself thinking, “Wait, what did the author mean by their reference to [topic x]?”, which is immediately followed by “Wait a minute; the author is just moving on—whatever happened to [topic X]?” The key difference for Level-1 writing is that by the time you get to the end of the document, you will have encountered appropriate coverage of  [topic X]. In essence, there is resolution for the confusion, though not immediate.    

Examples of Level-1 writing: In the examples below, note the separation between the cause of the confusion (italicized) and the quieting of it (underlined); the time that the reader spends between these statements constitutes the protracted state of confusion that characterizes Level-1 writing (emboldened):

  • “Much of the research in this domain agrees on the hypothesized underlying mechanism, though recent work has flatly contradicted that thinking. In this paper, we proceed on the assumption that the underlying mechanism is indeed the correct one, showing how the domain can be expanded into adjacent topic areas. The contradictory perspective is based on the argument that none of the prior research shows any support for the assumed mechanism, and that new research supports the viability of a competing mechanism.”
  • “The reader is likely familiar with the five dimensions of personality contained in the big-five structure—Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—but few are aware of the next three dimensions. Expanding our consideration of personality into this eight-component framework can greatly increase the predictive power of personality measurement in employment testing. The three additional dimensions in question are grit, grote, and groot.”

Level 2: Psychic Confusion Detection

Definition: This level of writing carries the description of “Psychic Confusion Detection” because it appears to acknowledge and assuage a reader’s confusion as soon as it arises, as though the author was somehow psychic and read the reader’s mind. More concretely, Level-2 writing contains a statement that establishes an expectation on the part of the reader and then, in the very next sentence or within a later part of the same sentence, the author meets that expectation.

How to identify Level-2 writing: If, as with Level-0 and Level-1 writing, you find yourself thinking, “Wait, what did the author mean by their reference to [topic x]?” but then, within the same sentence or immediately thereafter, you encounter an appropriate coverage of [topic X], you are likely experiencing Level-2 writing. More playfully, if you think, “How did the author know that I wanted to see an elaboration on or explanation of [topic X]? It’s like the author can read my mind!” you are likely experiencing Level-2 writing.

Examples of Level-2 writing: In the examples below, note that the cause of the confusion (italicized) still precedes the quieting of it (underlined); in Level-2 writing, confusion is extremely short lived but still present. See if you experience some version of the “Hey, that’s just what I was curious about! How did they know?” that puts the “Psychic” in this level’s name.

  • “Much of the research in this domain agrees on the hypothesized underlying mechanism, though recent work has flatly contradicted that thinking. The contradictory perspective is based on the argument that none of the prior research shows any support for the assumed mechanism, and that new research supports the viability of a competing mechanism.”
  • “The reader is likely familiar with the five dimensions of personality contained in the big-five structure—Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—but few are aware of the next three dimensions. The three additional dimensions in question are grit, grote, and groot.”

Level 3: An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure

Definition: In Level-3 writing, expectations are met before they even arise, and confusion on the part of the reader is avoided entirely. The reader encounters the answer to a question before they even know that they have that question.

How to identify Level-3 writing: Following the framework used in this element of the descriptions of each of Levels 0 through 2 above, a reader may only realize that they’ve been consuming a Level-3 product if, upon reflection after reading the entire work, they realize that they have not once wondered where the author was going with a particular term or argument.

Examples of Level-3 writing: In the examples below, note that the prevention of the confusion (underlined) comes before the potential cause of the confusion (italicized). Sentences are also somewhat rewritten to avoid introducing other sources of confusion:

  • “Much of the research in this domain agrees on the hypothesized underlying mechanism, though recent work, based on the argument that none of the prior research shows any support for the assumed mechanism and that new research supports the viability of a competing mechanism, has flatly contradicted that thinking.”
  • “The reader is likely familiar with the five dimensions of personality contained in the big-five structure—Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—but here we introduce the reader to three additional dimensionsnamely, grit, grote, and groot—that fit into and expand the model.”

Closing

Some of the written works that we consume in our field present subtle and complicated arguments that call on a reader to remain focused and to hold many different narrative threads in mind at once. On the assumption that confusion will interfere with a reader’s ability to easily comprehend a written work, this article submits a structure to identify one source of confusion—distracting expectations—and to take steps to identify and eliminate it. The examples presented here are largely out of context, purpose built, and silly; they do not capture the difficulty that a writer will face in trying to strike the challenging balances—those mentioned at the start of the article between clarity and wordiness, between engagement and cognitive ease, and many others not mentioned in this article. They are designed to give authors a framework in which to consider the impact of each of their sentences or statements.

The article is oriented toward authors, but it is also intended to give editors/reviewers a way to put their finger on how and why they are confused and how to communicate with the original author about this and how to improve their writing—perhaps simply by pointing that author toward this article.

Below is a simple table that may serve as a helpful reminder in applying these concepts.

 

Level of writing

 

Level 0

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Does reader experience confusion?

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Is the confusion resolved within the document?

No

Yes

Yes

N/A

How soon is the reader’s confusion remedied?

Never

Eventually

Immediately

N/A

How to move to the next level of writing?

Actually resolve the confusion at some point.

Resolve the confusion immediately instead of waiting.

Prevent the confusion entirely rather than resolving it immediately.

N/A

 

Note

[1] Please remember that all examples in this article are simulated for the purpose of illustration and do not intentionally reflect accurate claims about our field.

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