Clarity in Writing

By | June 6, 2016

I just finished reading a slew of manuscript samples and came away with an astounding epiphany: Crafting readable text is a lot harder to accomplish than to recommend. The inability to accomplish usually revolves around a lack of knowledge on how to achieve basic clarity (i.e. readability). Yet, without a clearly written narrative, how can readers understand and enjoy a story, let alone complete it?

They can’t, which may be why so many readers fail to finish the books they begin reading. Chances are good that if a reader doesn’t finish one book by an author, they’re not going to buy another. And without readers and additional sales, a writer’s career will tank.

What can we as writers do to minimize reader slippage and maximize clarity? Below are three suggestions based on the most common problems encountered across published and unpublished manuscripts I’ve recently read, followed by a maxim to live by.

Grammar

I’m a huge fan of tailoring grammar to a character’s personality. Here’s a passage from a Contemporary Fantasy I’m writing in my spare time:

My mama? She in prison now. Was her what taught me how to kill. She sure done a number on my daddy. I never could look on her straight-like again, not after seeing what she done to him. That didn’t stop me none from doing the same to that pooka. You mess with my baby, you gonna pay.

Horrible grammar, right? But you understand exactly what’s going on, don’t you? That’s because I don’t aim for good grammar. I aim for clarity. I don’t give a flying flip about the grammar as long as the message is conveyed clearly, strongly, and in a manner compliant with the personality of the character(s).

That said, I encounter a lot of writing that isn’t just a bit muddled; it’s outright unclear what’s going on.

Driving her car into a tree, she relocated.

The leading phrase does describe an action taken by the subject of the sentence (i.e. it modifies she), but there are several problems with the way the sentence is constructed. For one, what in the blazes does wrecking one’s car have to do with relocating? I have no clue, yet there it is, one of the most popular sentence constructions I’ve run across recently: Two separate actions jammed together, creating an incoherent mishmash.

Here’s another example:

Throwing her leg over a tree limb, she wrote a poem.

As with the previous example, there are significant gaps between the actions described in each half of the sentence. Did she settle onto the limb and sit there? Did she get out stationery and ponder what she wanted to write? She probably did all those things, and if the author of that line (me) had included at least one of those additional actions, readers would have a much clearer idea of the story and, even better, the character’s personality.

Failing that, simply adding a preposition would’ve kept the sentence from feeling slightly off, thereby avoiding readers rereading for meaning:

After throwing her leg over a tree limb, she wrote a poem.

It’s not great. There are still gaps in the action, but the added preposition creates a timeline for the action that is mentioned, thus  providing clarity in a way the previous try did not.

I know, I know. They say prepositions weaken writing.

Did you hear my eyes roll all the way over there?

You should’ve. Here’s what I say: Bad writing advice leads to bad writing. Or as Winston Churchill said:

Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

Boy, did he have a way with words.

Distracting Punctuation

Oh, the em dashes! The comma splices! The excess exclamation points, semicolons, and colons!!!

I once beta read a manuscript in which every sentence ended with an exclamation point. Every sentence. My hand to God, y’all, that’s exactly the way it was written.

The point of punctuation is clarity. That’s its sole function. Without punctuation, stories would be one long, unreadable discourse, kind of like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

I don’t care how good a writer he is. I refuse to read a novel containing dialogue not sorted from the narrative by quotation marks.

Weird, but true fact: Meaning is lost without proper punctuation.

Maybe you like experimental writing, in which case your ideal reader isn’t in genre fiction. I wish you well with that endeavor.

But I write genre fiction. It sells by the bucket loads, if it’s done well. Writers can therefore make a living off of it, enabling us to write to our hearts’ content and eat three square meals every day.

In fiction, ditch the semi-colons and colons. Use exclamation points, em dashes, and ellipses sparingly. Put commas in their proper place, not too few, never too many, and separate dialogue from the narrative with quotation marks. Pretty much everything else gets a period except questions, and they get question marks.

There you go. Simple, effective punctuation rules designed to maximize clarity.

Paragraph Construction

Whew, boy. Authors struggle with this one, even published authors. I do, but I figure if I don’t get it right on my own, my editor will ding me for it in the post-first draft phase.

Placing the actions of one character with the dialogue of a second character is the biggest construction blunder by far:

She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I rolled my eyes.

“You’re an idiot.”

“I am not an idiot.” She punched my arm. I punched her back.

She pushed me. “Don’t do that.”

Think that’s a bad example? Try again.

She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I rolled my eyes.

“You’re an idiot,” she continued.

I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at her. “I am not an idiot.”

She punched my arm. I punched her back. She pushed me.

“Don’t do that,” I said, and stalked out of the room.

How clear is that first example compared to the same scene when it’s rewritten to indicate each character’s speech? Simply separating said speech into separate paragraphs and adding dialogue or action tags when appropriate will go a long way toward achieving clarity.

Speaking of Clarity

While writing my first novel, I formulated an important motto: Be married to the story, not the words.

To paraphrase, the story is more important than the individual words used to construct it. If a section gets in the way of the story or risks confusing the reader, I cut it or rewrite it no matter how fond I am of the particular wording.

Here are a few examples of deleted text. This one is told from Drew Martin’s perspective and was deleted from the first draft of Sanctuary.

“Hey, guys,” he said. “Wake up. We’ve got a lead.”

Chana groaned. “You said we could sleep.”

“Yeah, about that. Saul needs Favi.”

“If you want me to help,” Favi said, “you should really stop referring to me as a guy.”

“It’s an all-encompassing word. Now get your ass out of bed and go help Saul.”

Favi opened one eye and glared at him.

The next one was deleted from the first draft of In All Things, Balance.

A shaky laugh forced its way out of the tightness clogging Moira’s throat. A Daughter had her duty, and her primary duty was to care for her family. She’d raced off seeking vengeance, leaving Tom to his own devices, and he’d left as if she meant nothing to him, as if he hadn’t understood the whys, and why should he have? He was her duty now… She’d forgotten [that] in her rush to prove her honor.

And finally, here’s part of a conversation deleted from Tempered, told from Aaron Kesselman’s point of view.

“You know. She found love and became mortal?”

Hawthorne’s tale spun out in Aaron’s head, her centuries-long life, the vengeance she’d carried out on her mother’s death. He shook it away. “You don’t really believe [your wife] was immortal before you married her, do you?”

Jim’s lips compressed into a thin slash across his ebony face. “You know, it’s none of my business, but if you’re going to live with a Daughter, you need to find a way to trust her.”

These sections said plenty, but didn’t add to the story or take it where it should go, so down the toilet they went. The first three opening scenes I wrote for The Gathering Storm went the same way. Yup, three whole scenes, a total of 4,473 words. They just weren’t right for the story I wanted to tell. I did hate having to discard the following:

Mortal mating habits. Fascinating subject.

Alas, ’twas not meant to be.

Have you formulated a motto or statement to help keep your writing on track? What do you do to achieve clarity and help readers understand your stories? Let me know below.

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