Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writing Workshop - Part 2 - Clarity


A Writing Workshop on a Topic Everyone Hates--Revision

Part 2 - CLARITY

I want to begin by repeating the quote I used in Part 1 - UNITY.  The quote is from the movie Finding Forester.

“You write your first draft with your heart and you rewrite with your head.  The best key to writing is to write, not to think.”  

CLARITY is the second part of writing with your head.

CLARITY is simple.  Or it should be simple.

Simply defined, CLARITY means that nothing should prevent the reader from quickly getting your point.  Anything that prevents or delays a reader’s understanding of your meaning is a problem.

Good writing is precise writing.  Clear writing is easy reading.  Think Hemingway.

There is sometimes a battle in historical or paranormal writing (I do both) to explain something complicated--or historically necessary--without boring the reader.  One tip is to explain something complicated in dialogue, or demonstrate it through action.  If one character explains to another, the reader learns along with the characters.  But more on that later...

It’s also important not to slow the action of your story explaining.  There’s nothing worse than an action scene interrupted with description.

In my upcoming book, LORD OF SWORDS, there’s an important action scene that takes place at the end of the book.  I made sure you have visited that location early in the book.  When I take you there during my climactic scene, you can already picture the setting, and I can just go straight to the action.

To really write with CLARITY, you need to consider the following:

1.  You can’t explain something you don’t understand yourself.

CLARITY requires research.  Learn the facts and use them correctly.  Explaining something clearly is not good enough if the underlying research is wrong! your research!!

Consider explaining how to pack a parachute.  Your directions might be impeccably written, but if your underlying information is wrong, or you don’t understand why the chute needs to be folded just’ll kill the skydiver.

2.  Know your audience.

CLARITY requires knowing your audience.  Can you explain esoteric terms in context without boring those who already know them?

3.  Choosing the right words.

CLARITY is a direct reflection of your personal vocabulary.  Do you have precise words at your command, and do you know how to use them?

CLARITY also means knowing which words are part of the vocabulary of the world you are creating.  How are you using them?  Will a new reader be pulled from your story if they meet a word they don’t know?

As a writer of historical romance, I am always making decisions about anachronistic words and phrases.  I can’t use only those words that existed in the twelfth century.  When I do choose an anachronistic word, I have to be careful that the word doesn’t have a “modern” feel which will jerk the reader out of the time period.  If a member of my critique group, or an editor, marks a word as contemporary in feel, I strike it out.

4.  Always explain in the shortest way possible.
Remember, the longer you take to explain something, the more likely readers will skim.  Skim is a 4-letter word!

This is another time having a critique group or a set of beta-readers can help with CLARITY.  Ask your readers to mark any phrase, passage, sentence etc. if they had to read it more than once.  My group underlines and puts a 2X or 3X in the margin.   This tells me one of my partners needed to read the underlined words two or three times to understand my intent.  Always rewrite anything that is not immediately clear!

Think of the old-fashioned telegram:
Example 1:
My Darling Sarah,
Meet me at the Hilton Hotel in that cute little bar we like so much at 9:45 PM.  Wear that slinky black dress!
Love, John

Example 2:
Meet me at 9:45.  John

The first example is too wordy for its purpose.  Always remember your purpose when examining CLARITY.

The second example is too short for understanding.  Where should Sarah meet John?  When should she meet him?  AM or PM?

So strike a happy medium in your writing.  Remember my telegrams.  Don’t “spend” too many words getting your idea across, but don’t be too “stingy” either.

5.  Know your plot.
CLARITY is easier to achieve if you know the plot of your book before hand.  Plotting, knowing your turning points, knowing the roadmap of your story, will help you achieve clarity.

A reader must understand your intent at all times, so if you understand your intent, you are better able to lead the reader to the fabulous climax you’ve planned for them.  They will also arrive at the climax in the happy state of anticipation you’ve spent so much time and energy building.

CLARITY is sharpness of vision.  If you know your story goal and you head straight for it, you will achieve CLARITY.  This also applies to UNITY.  The two are intertwined.

Common CLARITY errors:
1.  Pronouns referring to the wrong noun
Mary and Jane took her brother’s bike and sold it on Craigslist.

Whose brother?  Mary’s or Jane’s?

Rewrite 1:
Mary and Jane took Mary’s brother’s bike and sold it on Craigslist.

Dull, but we know it’s Mary’s brother who owns the bike.

Rewrite 2:
Jane giggled as Mary put her brother’s bike up for sale on Craigslist.  That would fix the little pain-in-the-ass, she thought.

You should be asking...who thought?
We know it’s Mary’s brother, but we don’t know who thinks the brother is a pain-in-the-ass.

Rewrite 3:
Jane giggled as Mary put her brother’s bike up for sale on Craigslist.
“That should fix the little pain-in-the-ass,” Mary said.

Adding action and dialogue will solve most CLARITY problems.

2.  Vague point of view

Examine your writing for point of view (POV).   Cement the POV character as quickly as possible, hopefully within the first sentence of any change.  Always make a change of POV a new paragraph.

If you only do one point of view per scene, it is still important that you "point" the reader to the POV character right away.  Using names instead of pronouns will help cement POV.  

3.  More than one topic per paragraph...which is also a UNITY error!

So, to sum it all up...

CLARITY is similar to looking through a camera lens.
How many pictures have you deleted or tossed in the trash because they were fuzzy?

Unfortunately, in writing, fuzzy writing may mean a reader closes your book without finishing it.  The reader may not buy your next one either.

The worst part of lack of CLARITY is that vague sense of unease or discomfort I mentioned under UNITY.  Although a reader may finish your book, they may also leave with a sense of dissatisfaction that will prevent them from buying the next one!

I want to end with a quote:

“It is not enough to write so that you can be understood; you must write so clearly that you cannot be misunderstood.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Part 3 - EMPHASIS - Coming Wednesday, September 18th!


  1. I can't tell you how many times I've given up on a book because the "rogue" pronouns drove me nuts trying to figure out whodunit or whosaidit. The suggestions you make to illustrate clear writing are invaluable. Every writer should read this lesson!

  2. Good reminders. Thanks!