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Clarity and understanding

This post was published on Tuesday 22 January 2008.

I am currently trying to learn how to use XSL for my website.   XSL stands for eXtensible Stylesheet Language, and allows an XML file to be displayed in a friendly format.

XML files look like HTML, and they are commonly used for holding data.   While slower than a database, they are much easier to read with the naked eye.   Because of this, they are very useful for sharing data across different systems.   For example, try opening a *.doc file in a text editor.   It is a load of gobbledegook.   Now find a *.docx file, change the extension to .zip, extract the files, and view them in a text editor.   You can read it with the naked eye.

However, all of that isn’t my point.   A friend recently wrote a blog post complaining about overly complex language when explaining one’s ideas.   It is of course not limited to academic circles, but all over the place.   I have been reading online guides to understanding XSL, and many of them are absolutely useless.   They use jargon.   They explain things using other concepts they haven’t explained.   They use single sentences to describe complex things.   And so on.

I think that at the root of all this is a lack of understanding.   The path to clarity is nothing less than understanding.   If people do not understand fully what they are saying, then they will regurgitate complex language in an attempt to sound clever, to sound like they really understand what they are talking about.

After all, I should know: I did this at university.   When writing essays I ‘copied’ the language of the books I was reading, in order to sound clever, because I didn’t really understand.   One of my first essays is a wonderfully dense description of ‘nothingness’, using language heavily derived from Moltmann’s own dense analysis.   When you really do understand something, it is painfully obvious when people are doing this.

My plea is this: please don’t write an instruction manual, or something explaining a concept, unless you understand at least most of it, if not all of it!