All writers know that confusion in writing can cause a lot of annoyance or frustration for readers.
When parts of a text are unclear or difficult to understand, it weakens your message or story.
However, most of the leading causes of confusion are usually relatively easy to fix.
The key to solving most problems, and keeping your readers engaged, is knowing where to look.
Causes of confusion in writing
One of the primary causes is when you make assumptions about what your reader knows.
Depending on the topic, it may be necessary to provide a little more background information.
With technical or technology subjects especially, it’s easy to presume that all your readers know the basics. But many may not.
Other causes of confusion can be purely grammatical.
You know what you want to say, and for you, it makes sense.
But some sentences can be open to interpretation, vague, or unclear even with reasonable grammar.
Very often, the cause is overly complex or unnecessarily long sentences.
Vocabulary is another issue where word choice can make a difference to your writing clarity.
But it’s not simply about long, short, or confusing words. You need to ensure that you choose words that most readers can understand.
Let’s take a closer look at some specific elements that can cause confusion in writing.
1. Avoiding ambiguity
One of the most common causes of confusion is ambiguity.
It occurs when readers can interpret phrases or sentences in multiple ways. Here’s a simple example.
I saw Joel walking slowly to the bus stop with his mother on crutches.
A reader could interpret from the sentence that either Joel or his mother was on crutches.
The easiest way to fix a problem like this is to move the defining clause closer to the subject or object.
I saw Joel on crutches walking slowly to the bus stop with his mother.
To avoid ambiguity, try to be as clear and specific as possible in your writing. Also, avoid phrases that can have more than one interpretation.
2. Vague or imprecise language
Another common cause of confusion in writing is vague or imprecise vocabulary.
Words or phrases that should be more specific can leave readers confused and unsure of what you are trying to say.
For example, here’s a vague sentence. He’s a big man.
Is it referring to the man’s physical size or his stature in society?
He’s a big man in local politics. – He’s a big man, standing six foot eight.
When you see that a sentence is a little vague, simply add some specifics.
3. Beware of inconsistency
Inconsistencies in style, tone, or point of view can often cause confusion for readers.
One example is if you switch from a first-person point of view to a third-person point of view within your text.
It can be disorienting for readers and make it difficult for them to understand your main ideas.
I always say that good grammar is good writing. My English teacher often gave me good advice like that.
But combining these two sentences with one point of view can resolve the problem.
My English teacher always said good grammar is good writing, which was true.
To avoid inconsistencies, be as consistent as possible in your writing style, tone, and point of view.
4. Complex sentence structure
Long, convoluted sentences can be difficult to follow and understand.
They can make it challenging for readers to grasp the central ideas.
Try to avoid too much complexity.
Use simple and direct language and break up extra-long sentences into shorter, more manageable chunks.
5. Unclear context
Lack of context can sometimes cause information gaps in writing.
If there is not enough information, readers may have trouble understanding the meaning or purpose of some phrases.
Marshall studied physics in Canada.
This sentence above would be better if it conveyed more information.
Marshall studied physics in Canada before returning to Australia to work on a secret project for the government.
When you add some brief where and when background information, the context is much more precise.
Technical or specialized terms can be frustrating for readers.
If they are unfamiliar with the subject, jargon words can be difficult to understand.
A good example is the word canonical when discussing search engine optimization and Google indexing.
You need to specify your canonical link.
The word canonical has many meanings and can relate to physics, mathematics, or religion.
To prevent duplicate content issues, you need to define your canonical URL, which is your preferred version of your URL.
When you see the possibility of confusion, use plain language or briefly explain technical or specialized terms.
7. Lack of organization
Poor organization can make it difficult for readers to follow the flow of ideas and understand the main point.
To avoid confusion, try to organize your writing in a logical order.
Ensure you include a clear introduction, body text, and conclusion.
When you use headings, subheadings, and other formatting techniques, they can help guide your readers through the text.
8. Cultural or language barriers
Local vocabulary and idioms are a common source of confusion when communicating across cultures.
An idiom understood in one culture may not have the same meaning or significance in another.
This can lead to confusion or misinterpretation.
For instance, it’s pants.
For UK readers, the meaning of pants is probably clear in the expression, but it may not be for US readers.
It might be better to use a phrase all readers understand.
It’s nonsense. – It’s a load of rubbish.
For US readers, the word irregardless might seem okay to use, but for other readers, regardless is the correct word.
9. Unreferenced acronyms
When you use acronyms, it may not be apparent to a reader what they stand for.
For instance, what does AMA mean?
Is it American Medical Association, Australian Medical Association, Ask Me Anything, American Music Awards, or Anti-Mitochondrial Antibodies?
Whenever you use an acronym, it’s always good practice to reference the first mention.
The American Music Awards (AMA) is an annual American music awards show, generally held in the fall.
Making your writing understandable and clear for your readers can sometimes be challenging.
You know what you are trying to say, and it might seem very clear to you.
But for readers, that’s not always the case.
It is especially true when you publish content online because your readers can be anywhere in the world.
You don’t want to oversimplify your writing.
But you do need to check and make sure your writing is as clear and understandable as possible.
Related Reading: Clarity In Writing – 10 Key Points To Write Clearly