Common Sense and Unclear Writing

Katie Ballalatak

In the first chapter of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup focus on one of the most pronounced problems that writers (and editors) struggle with today— unclear writing. Writers have a lot to say, and they have an extensive vocabulary at their disposal to use as they see fit in their writing. Unfortunately, many writers end up being more confusing to their readers than enlightening. They often forget that their writing will always be clearer to them than to their readers because they are the ones who wrote it. This is why almost every piece of writing goes through the hands of an editor at least once. Editors help writers clearly express their thoughts in a way that engages readers instead of driving them away with superfluous words, complicated style and overly long sentences that are overloaded with too much information.

Williams and Bizup present their readers with a short history on unclear writing in their first chapter of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. All the excerpts address the same issue: unnecessary complexity of the written word whether it be in the academic, legal, political, or scientific field.  What caught my attention was the excerpt from Thomas Paine’s political pamphlet Common Sense—“In the following pages“In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense (4).” [1] I remember reading this little pamphlet in high school and being utterly impressed with the clarity of Paine’s words. It astounded me to think that a little seventy-nine page pamphlet aided in changing the course of an entire nation.  It made me curious to know more about communication in the American Revolution. What was political writing like during the American Revolution? Why was Common Sense so successful? And as editors, what can we learn about the writing and political fields today as a result Thomas Paine’s influential pamphlet?

Political writing at the time of the American Revolution was both intense and lengthy, and communication between royally appointed legislative leaders, patriot leaders, the colonists, and of course, the British Parliament, flew in all directions.  There were four main correspondences going on simultaneously: the obvious communication between the thirteen colonies and Great Britain; communication among the patriots themselves; communication between the royally appointed legislatives and the patriots; and communication between all the political leaders and the colonists (both royalists and patriots) who were not directly or politically involved with the events that were taking place. Upon witnessing the discord among the colonists, and seeing the lack of persuasive, knowledgeable, consistent and clear communication between the patriot leaders and those interested in (or perhaps skeptical of) the independence movement, Paine focused on addressing the common people of the thirteen colonies. He did so with two objectives in mind: first, to convince the American colonists of the importance of their separation from England and second, to use such simple language and clear writing that anyone off the New England streets would be able to pick up his pamphlet and understand his words.   He avoided the difficult, flowery language that many well-educated men used in their writing, and wrote so the common man could read his words easily.

Paine’s style of writing vastly differed from the usual political language of the time. Thomas Jefferson’s writing provides a good example of this time period’s complex style.  The following quote is the beginning line of Jefferson’s “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” that was issued on July 6, 1775:

If it was possible for men, who exercise their reason to believe, that the divine Author of our existence intended a part of the human race to hold an absolute property in, and an unbounded power over others, marked out by his infinite goodness and wisdom, as the objects of a legal domination never rightfully resistible, however severe and oppressive, the inhabitants of these colonies might at least require from the parliament of Great-Britain some evidence, that this dreadful authority over them, has been granted to that body. [2]

This document was shared between the Second Continental Congress and the British Parliament.  While Jefferson’s writing style was appropriately formal for the cause and quite impressive (yes, there are nine correctly placed commas—I counted), it is hard to read and understand. It would make no sense to someone with limited schooling. I find this interesting because I consider myself as being fairly competent when it comes to reading scholarly articles, documents and such and yet, this opening line of Jefferson’s declaration completely baffles me.  If it doesn’t make sense to me, I can only imagine the colonists’ struggle if they were ever given something like this to read.  Paine understood the need for a practical, comprehensible political pamphlet to spread the patriots’ message. Thus, he rose to the challenge of creating a piece meant to be read and understood by the public.

Common Sense was published on January 10, 1776 in Philadelphia. It was short, only seventy-nine pages in length but extremely effective.  It instantly became a sensation, with approximately 120,000 copies in circulation by that spring.  Paine knew that most people in America read the Bible and took God’s word seriously (although he himself was not religious) so he utilized many Bible quotes in his arguments. [3]  This is significant because historians speculate that a majority of the adults (men and women alike) in the thirteen colonies could read at least enough to read scripture.  Paine’s conscious decision to craft his writing to fit his readers furthered the pamphlet’s success. Because of the clarity of writing in Common Sense, and Paine’s mindful decision to put his readers before himself, more colonists joined in the patriots’ cause; it inspired the thirteen colonies to declare their independence from Great Britain.

As Williams and Bizup point out, “[Thomas Paine] sparked no revolution in our national prose style (4).” However, even though Paine didn’t rid America of unclear writing, he did successful show us how influential clear writing can be, especially in the political field.  Using complicated political language obscures truth from the reader and creates communication barriers.  This is still a prevalent issue today and one that George Orwell tackles in his essay Politics and the English Language.

Politics and the English Language, which was published in 1946, Orwell criticizes the senseless political language of his time.  In the first paragraph he states, “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration (1).” [4] He points out that our thoughts influence our language and our language influences our thoughts; it is a circular problem, and one that must be broken.  It is Orwell’s opinion that we start with reversing the course that the English language is on.  He sets out six rules to do so:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (9).

Perhaps Paine did not abide by all of Orwell’s rules but the principle remains the same— political writing must be clear if one wants to connect with his or her readers and influence them accordingly.  It this endeavor, vagueness, bad grammar and complicated vocabulary will not do. This is where we, the editors, come in, armed with our extensive knowledge of grammar and style.

In the case of Thomas Paine, it is not clear that he had an official editor for Common Sense. But regardless of this, his clear writing should be a reminder of just how valuable our editing skills are to writers. Elsie Myers Stainton, the author of The Fine Art of Copyediting, describes a good copyeditor as a “fusspot – one who cares (4).”  I think this description fits all editors across the board. As editors, we want to help authors communicate as clearly as possible.  We are “laborers whose names will not be on the wine bottle” [6] as Stainton metaphorically describes us, but we don’t mind because this is what we love to do.  We strive to help authors in their undertaking of the English language so that they can communicate their thoughts clearly to their intended audience and so that readers do not have to struggle through unnecessarily confusing and complex writing.


1.Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2014), 4

2. Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Causes and the Necessity of Taking Up Arms, July 5, 1775, accessed February 6, 2016,

3. “Thomas Paine’s Common Sense”, accessed February 6, 2016,

4. George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946, accessed February 6, 2016,

5. Elsie Stainton Myers, The Fine Art of Copywriting (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 4



Add yours →

  1. I appreciate how you integrated both a historical and modern perspective in this essay. It’s easy to think of all writing from history as something as inflated, complex, and comma-heavy as your example from Thomas Jefferson. However, even your small example from Thomas Paine’s writing disproves this. Jefferson could have just as easily written something like: “If one human government was meant to rule over its people in such an oppressive way, we at least need some evidence that God intended humans to be treated as the British are treating us.” (Obviously it’s still imperfect, but it’s a little simpler.) In your example, Paine bypassed most of the commas and told us that he’s going to use plain speech.

    It might seem that we’ve abandoned Jefferson’s elaborate style in favor of Paine’s simplicity in modern writing, since one makes so much more sense to us than the other. This isn’t the case, though. We can still find plenty of examples of inflated writing today (have you ever had to read from a scientific journal?), and they only emphasize Paine’s philosophy: clear prose is effective prose. Our modern political speeches might not resemble the Jefferson example, but that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. As editors, we have to recognize that unclear writing is still prevalent today. Then again, if it wasn’t, we would have to find a new line of work.


  2. I loved the historical connections you made in this piece Katie! Including the words of such influential (though in very different ways) men from America’s past provided such strong examples for your paper. The amount of impact that Thomas Paine had with his “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” was incredible. I think that, too often, academics write in a language that only those trained in their field would understand, neglecting the importance of clarity for all who read it. That’s not to say that an experienced bio-chemist should write her work for the understanding of a high school freshman, but rather that writers should consider how and why they use the language and structure that they do. Is it necessary to convey meaning, or just used to keep themselves sounding highly knowledgeable?
    Another important aspect of Paine’s writing is his ability to convey complex ideas in a simple way, not simple ideas in a simple way. Too often, I hear students complain that the writing they read is too complicated and difficult to understand; they would rather have it spelled out or given to them in a Spark Notes fashion. This is not the solution. Yes, writing should be clear, but readers must do some of the work in taking apart pieces of the text in order to better understand the author’s ideas. Otherwise, the beauty of language will be lost and all writing will consist of short, one-topic sentences with little to offer the world of writing. Thomas Paine knew just how to strike a balance that included readers with lower reading ability, but still conveyed complex and important ideas. Politicians today, as you pointed out, could learn from Paine and make communication with readers more fruitful by being clearer


  3. Katie, you did an amazing job integrating all this historical research into such a short paper. Your writing is concise and informative (and very clear, so I guess you followed those rules!) without being totally boring. The Thomas Paine example, and the bit of your own personal history that you share involving the text, kept me engaged throughout.
    Also, I thought this phrase was interesting: “Perhaps Paine did not abide by all of Orwell’s rules but the principle remains the same— political writing must be clear if one wants to connect with his or her readers and influence them accordingly. It this endeavor, vagueness, bad grammar and complicated vocabulary will not do.” Especially now with a presidential election coming up, I definitely agree that when it comes to politics, communication is key if a candidate wants to stand a chance. But it’s fascinating to see what relationship political rhetoric has with clarity. One would hope that if a candidate’s message isn’t clear, then clarification would be asked for, or the message would simply be ignored. But sometimes, I think politicians can get away with unclear rhetoric if the tone and emotion behind their message aligns with their audience’s ideals. In some cases in modern political rhetoric, are emotionally charged buzzwords more important than clarity?


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