In one of his autobiographies (there are at least two) Isaac Asimov said that when asked what he strove for in his writing, his answer was “clarity.” I remember that often as I read news stories and other ambiguous items. On July 23, 2019, The Washington Post ran a story about a person’s childhood. It quoted their grandparents’ opinion of the person, then told how their father was structurally unavailable, and their mother worked constantly. Then the paragraph said, “They raised him as their own child.” The word they being close to his dysfunctional parents, although it obviously refers back to the grandparents. Or does it? Could you make an argument that the author of the piece was actually referring to the parents, perhaps trying to make some subtle point about their parenting skills? Well, yes, you could. And that is why that paragraph is not clear. All it needs is for “They” to be replaced with “The grandparents” and all would be well, and clear.
That was in a newspaper that is, unusually, not interfered with by its owner (Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame.) A paper that can, most people think, be trusted most of the time. And they let unclear writing go right on out into the world. Come on, Post, get it together, okay? But consider what you see on social media. Any social media. Is it clear? Can you spot any ambiguity in the text? And, sure, I tend to lean more toward humanism than authoritarianism, but I’m talkin’ ’bout you, Liberals and Progressives. Because, thanks to the magic of filtering, I generally only see Conservative screeds second-hand, that is, when somebody reposts them. (I do follow POTUS on Twitter.) The folks I follow make a great many assumptions, about themselves, their audience, and their opposition. Any time you’re assuming something in a text it is perforce ambiguous. And ambiguity is the perfect opposite (apposite, even) of clarity.
So, here’s an exercise you can do. Go through your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. feeds and check for the ambiguous postings. There will be a lot. Look closely at the techniques the posters use to drive home their point to the unwary. Then, as you write your stories, never, ever do those things. The way things are, that alone might guarantee you the clarity good writing always deserves and needs.