Writing with Ambiguity to Facilitate Greater Audience Participation and Subsequent Understanding and Internalization of the Material

Which is the more successful format that writers can pursue to reach their audience: writing declaratively, explicitly, and thoroughly, or writing with brevity, supplying little more than what is fundamentally necessary for the reader? Each has its own merit. Under some circumstances, a writer may carefully and comprehensively lay out his argument to say to the reader, in effect, that this is my topic and here is what you need to know about it. Writing in this manner seems traditional and practical, something that we all use especially in the academic world. However, one cannot discount the benefits of writing with more abbreviation, in a more open-ended format.

Spurring my interest in this topic is a recurring theme in my class on the Supreme Court. The most important document in establishing American identity and the values that makes us unique, the Constitution, was intentionally written in vague terms. It is interesting to ponder the implications of this. How can the backbone of America’s political system and in many respects society be ambiguous? Why wasn’t such a significant document approached with  decisiveness, clarity, and exactness?

Many have argued that writing the Constitution using exact language that covered every potential aspect of the nascent country would have ran contrarian to the idea of limited government. If the writers of the Constitution wrote as students do in their scholarly pursuits, freedom for the people to decide and comprehend the law themselves would have been sacrificed. Law is vague and variable  in order to preserve the liberty of the people (the audience) and open-ended in order to reflect the constraints of codifying such an immense and nuanced subject.

Writing in this format is useful in other cases than the Constitution. When a writer wants his audience to do some self-exploration on the topic he is addressing, he may consider writing so that the reader is prompted to carry some of the load. Rather than explicitly laying out his main points and the conclusion he made from them (that the reader should know), the author may intentionally leave some ends untied, inviting the reader to knot them up on his own. That is not to say writers pursuing this format lack conviction. Writing to influence others may be more effective when it is done with a dash of ambiguity to get the gears turning in the audience’s head, inspiring them to digest the topic and framework and fill in accordingly. Such participation has value in the greater likelihood that the author’s main ideas will stick, and, as we saw earlier, in the affordance of maintaining audience open-mindedness. Structuring the writing, perhaps by posing questions, in a way that invites the reader to fill in some of the missing pieces and explore the topic himself is one way to facilitate this form.

There is something to be said for writing in the “thesis, topic sentence 1, topic sentence 2, topic sentence 3, conclusion” format. It is expeditious and pragmatic in its conveying to the reader that this is what the reader thinks and what you need to remember about it. Some topics do not lend themselves to such comprehensive writing, however, and it may very well be that abstaining from direct, scientific writing may prove to be more accommodating to the reader, which would in turn assist them in remembering and using the author’s argument going forward.


2 thoughts to “Writing with Ambiguity to Facilitate Greater Audience Participation and Subsequent Understanding and Internalization of the Material”

  1. Great post, Christopher. After reading your thoughts, the image of Ron Paul came to my mind. He calls himself a strict Constitutionalist, someone who believes the country should be run in strict accordance with the Constitution. As you explained in the post above, this is not always possible. The Founding Fathers intentionally wrote the Constitution to be somewhat vague and ambiguous terms to allow the text to adapt to the growing nation. I think you’re right in saying that certain pieces should allow for interpretation and imagination on the reader’s end. Of course, this will bring about disagreement and frustration. However, these differences in opinion will also spur necessary conversations and open up channels of communication. In the case of the U.S. Constitution, it’s understandable for people to get riled up about veering away from the text and not heeding the directives. I believe, though, that it’s ok for us not to be following the text word by word. The language in the Constitution can be quite confusing and outdated. The Constitution should be looked at as a framework and outline rather than a rule book.

  2. Christopher,

    What an interesting post! It made me think of our class discussion about taking what we read at face value and putting all our trust into a piece of writing. Conversely, I think vague writing puts its trust in the reader to, as you say, foster reflection and opinion.

    I thought it was really interesting when you said that vague writing can help readers remember and use the author’s argument. Oftentimes, as students we look to acclaimed journals, established authors, etc. for contextual and evidential support for our claims. How does this work when we use ambiguous or vague works to support or oppose a particular interpretation or argument? Obviously, it creates more responsibility for the common reader/writer to think about the different ways this kind of writing can be interpreted by others so that their own credibility is not lost when using that writing to support a claim. However, that ambiguity can definitely be helpful in attaining different objectives in writing (and rewriting), as we have historically seen with the Constitution.

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