When the Reader Doesn’t Get It

Nobody likes to be misunderstood. For a writer, misunderstanding can mean certain death. I often remind writers that the hardest thing about writing is getting your reader to experience the same world that you created inside your head. What are some ways to help a reader’s experience match the writer’s intention?
Writing Tip for Today: As E.B. White often reminded, writers should strive to be clear and concise. Many a poor reader has been left at sea, flailing around in waves of purple prose, rabid modifiers or convoluted sentence structure.

  • Keep it Simple. In your quest to write original and artistic prose, beware the temptation to embellish your ideas with so much extra stuff that your message is hidden or lost. Extra stuff can mean a plethora of multiple modifiers and/or sentences overloaded with clauses or prepositional phrases. Kurt Vonnegut advised against using semicolons, another indicator that sentences may become too complex. Write as straightforwardly as you can.
  • Watch your pronouns. The word “it” often trips up a reader. Grammatically, the pronoun refers to the last noun mentioned. On the other hand, repeating a noun or proper name quickly becomes irritating.
  • Refrain from micro-managing. By this I mean imposing upon the reader specific descriptions that don’t add much to the story. Writers often burden readers with stage directions (EX: He looked to his right. Then he looked to his left.) or measurements (EX: She picked up the thirteen-point-four inch stick and waved it at the five-foot tall man.) Comparisons are often a better way to help the reader understand, because a comparison such as “The animal was as big as a VW Beetle,” gives an immediate picture. And in the case of stage directions, it’s no less effective to write, “He looked one way and then the other.”

A reader who doesn’t get your writing will likely stop reading. If you find yourself defending a passage, remember that you’d be hard-pressed to go to every reader’s house and explain what you really meant.

Try This! Look through a draft and circle all your modifiers (“ly” words and adjectives). Read the work without these words. Which are crucial to the reader’s understanding?

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

1 comment on “When the Reader Doesn’t Get It

  1. The micro-managing point is an important one. There can be a fine line between giving your reader detail and bombarding them with things that have little relevance. If everything you write is supposed to propel the story forward it’s possibly unwise to linger on what colour socks the hero was wearing!

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