When I started writing for publication, I had to unlearn some habits until I was writing with clarity. Aside from the smallish pun on my name, more than two decades later I still try to help writers understand and apply what writing with clarity means.
Writing Tip for Today: How does clarity impact writing and what should we strive for in our work?
Say What You Mean
Many new writers mistakenly believe they must write using elegant, big words. A mentor of mine once said, “Just write straight at it,” and he was right. By writing “straight at it,” you describe something using the simplest words and as few words as possible. The adage that you never use a ten-dollar word when a five-dollar word will do” really is true.
For example, as a new writer, I avoided contractions, thinking I sounded more literary or poetic without them. While the occasional formal version is fine, most of us speak and hear contractions in our daily lives. We don’t have to stop and think, what does that contraction mean? As I gained skill, I understood that nobody thought I was literary—just tedious. Use contractions if you can.
Another area where readers might need their dictionaries is when we describe common things with uncommon words. For example, cigarettes become smoking materials. By going for general rather than specific words, you rob readers of a particular and cinematic experience. There are quite a few smoking materials—say what you mean.
Verbs in Action
Using specific and active verbs is a second area that calls for clarity in writing. We use “action” words to help readers envision the doing in a story. If we settle for general verbs, readers receive less information to imagine the scene.
Look through your manuscript and identify passive and gerund constructions. The “to be” verbs (is, are, was, were) don’t convey action on their own. Turn your “to be” passive constructions around to give your sentence subject something to do. If you spot those gerunds (usually words ending in ing), simplify and strengthen by dropping the to be (is, was) and using the simple past tense. She was playing in the street becomes She played in the street.
What about verbs that are technically action words, but which are general? Watch for verbs such as, look, move, put, set, and so on. Give readers a more precise picture by replacing with very specific and active verbs: look could be a host of things such as gazing, staring, glaring and so on. Ask yourself how the character moves and with what attitude? The character’s attitude gives you action plus emotion—a winning combination.
the most information in the fewest and most direct words.
Clarified writing communicates the most information in the fewest and most direct words. By paying attention to your preposition usage, you may find plenty of ways to tighten your prose. Notice where you write the (noun) of the (modifier). Many times, you can eliminate the description’s prepositional phrase by bringing the modifier to the front and adding a possessive.
The brew of the witch becomes the witch’s brew. Another example might be: He walked to the only mansion in the city, becoming He walked to the city’s only mansion. Try this technique on your own work—it’s a helpful tool when you need to trim words in a query or synopsis.
Prepositions are also often responsible for adding detail where tension and high action must be maintained. We write details using prepositional phrases, and in a tense or high action scene, those details slow readers down. Tension is released, ruining the illusion. In these kinds of scenes, keep sentences short and use those specific, active verbs. Preposition use can help flag areas where you need to maintain tension.
Prepositions are often such little words—in, out, of, over. Yet their presence can help you set the pace. In addition to the real time it takes readers to read a passage, don’t forget the perceived passage of time implied by short sentences, little detail (or very targeted detail) and specific, active verbs. If you write using vague words or too many words, the readers’ perception of time changes the pace. Clarity counts!