20 questions toward achieving civic clarity in your writing

As the pandemic progresses with no end in sight, the goal for journalists and all public writers should be to lead the reader toward understanding.

September 10, 2020

As the pandemic progresses, with no end in sight, the goal for journalists and all public writers remains more urgent than ever: to achieve civic clarity, that effect that leads the reader toward the light of understanding.

Accuracy is job number one. Clarity is job number two. There is a job number three: You’ve got to find a way to make it interesting. Your report may be accurate, it may be clear, but, like a vaccine no one takes, if it does not move readers to thought or action, it’s like a medical mask worn hanging from one ear.

We can leave accuracy and interestingness for another day. For now, I want to return to familiar ground, a set of strategies that lead to comprehensibility, that inspire the writer to take responsibility for what readers know and understand.

I’ve written several versions of these strategies over the years under the banner of “Making hard facts easy reading.” But I believe this is the first time I am framing them as questions.

These are questions that the editor or teacher can ask the writer. More important, they are questions that writers can ask themselves to solve problems and do their duty.

20 questions towards civic clarity

1. How would I explain this to a smart person that I know — who is NOT an expert?

2. What are the three most important things I learned that I now have to unlearn to avoid what Steven Pinker — the cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author — calls the “curse of knowledge,” an inability to start, not with what we know, but with what our readers do not yet know?

3. Where are the points of greatest complexity so that I can slow down the pace of information there?

4. Have I used shorter words, sentences and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity?

5. Which are the necessary numbers? Which ones are unnecessary and can be avoided?

6. Is there heavy cargo — technical data, numbers — that can be lifted from the text and placed in an illustration, informational graphic, or list?

7. Where is the jargon, the technical language that came with the experts? What jargon terms can be avoided? Which ones need to be translated so that readers learn the secret codes?

8. Have I found an expert who can explain things in plain English, and who can be quoted without sacrificing technical accuracy?

9. Can I say with certainty that I have found my focus — the one key piece of knowledge I want to impart? If so, do all elements of the report support it?

10. Can I find a “mentor example,” a microcosm or small world that represents a larger reality, an intensive care unit rather than a whole hospital complex.

11. Is there a scene I can observe directly that allows me to create a telling experience for my readers?

12. If I am writing about a policy, have I explored its impact, the effect a change might have on key stakeholders?

13. Can I explain something by focusing on the experience of one human being? A small group?

14. Are my sources diverse enough so that I can reveal all of the key stakeholders and several points of view?

15. What story elements — character profiles, dialogues, scenes, anecdotes — offer context for the information in my report?

16. If I were to give my readers a pop quiz on my story, would they be able to pass based on the information I have provided?

17. Is my story so clear that a reader could pass along the most important information to another person?

18. Can an analogy help me take an unfamiliar or complex concept and make it familiar?

19. Is there less useful information I can delete from my report, so that readers are left with only the most useful?

20. Even though my work is clear, have I made it interesting enough so that readers will care?

This is the kind of list you might want to share with other public writers and editors. Be sure to keep a copy of the list close by so you can coach yourself through the challenges of achieving civic clarity.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.