Clarity is the difference between writing to yourself and writing to someone else

A few semesters ago, I had an out of town engagement on the first day of class, so I sent an email to all my future students introducing myself and giving them a writing assignment to work on before the “second” day of class. The majority of students answered my questions eloquently, used correct format for an email to an unknown superior, and generally impressed me with the writing skills they would be bringing to our class. However, not all of them exceeded my expectations.
The most common problem I ran into, besides unusual word choice and sentence structure that suggest this generation of students correlate formal writing with sounding like a time-traveling Elizabethan, was a lack of clarity. Some students were unable to explain what they were thinking in a way that would make sense to someone else. This is an interesting and pervasive problem. 

So much of the writing this technological generation is doing is online, which means it originates in isolation, without a clear audience to direct it to. We write posts on facebook, twitter, Instagram, our blogs, etc. and, sure, our friends and followers see them, but this is a wide and variable group. These same posts are also available, in many cases, to a more public audience. What this means is that our writing isn’t for anyone.

In response to my first day assignment, one student wrote the following:

I just got on to complete the homework, and took from the email that it wasn't due until the later class period.  I decided to put this assignment off so I could finish the rest of my assignments.  I'm pretty sure this is what you meant by the email but wanted to email you to make sure everything was alright.  I'll see you tomorrow morning!

Here are the questions I am led to ask:

1) “just got on” what?

2) What homework? I asked you to write and send an email to me answering 7 questions in lieu of class.

3) What email? Are you referring to the email I sent explaining the assignment?

4) What do you mean by “later class period”? Side note: I teach four sections, so does this person think all the sections have the same due date or does this person not understand what “Wednesday” means in my original email?

5) Why would a student tell me, the instructor, that they have deliberately delayed doing an assignment?

6) What does “this” refer to in “I’m pretty sure this is what you meant by the email”? Is this person referring to this email? To my email? Or to the email for homework which had 7 specific questions the student was supposed to answer?

7) Is this student concerned about my well being? Why is this person making “sure everything was alright’? Is their real goal to find out what the penalty will be for not completing the assignment within the required time frame?

8) What does this person want me to do with this email? What should I be responding to or what action should I be taking?

From the very beginning, the student assumes that I am inside his/her head, and s/he makes no effort to explain, or hide, any of their thoughts from me. It’s as if I am an omniscient instructor who sees well beyond the classroom. But the reality is that I have no idea what this email means or what the writer wants from me. To be effective, this email requires clarity and precision, the recognition that the author is trying to communicate to someone else, a reluctant authority figure.

If this were my class, I would ask everyone to revise this email to make it more effective; try it!