Welcome to the intricate dance of words and meanings, where the spotlight is on the importance of clarity in writing...and where we (all too often) get to experience firsthand the gap between what an author intends to say and what the reader perceives. This kind of thing can make or break a story, so let's dive right in!
Picture this: I ask you to describe an apple. "Red, juicy, and sweet," you might say. And while you're picturing a shiny red apple, I'm grimacing at the thought, because in my world, apples are green and slightly tart—the only kind I'd ever munch on! This simple example isn't just about fruit preferences; it's a vivid illustration of how our experiences and biases color our perceptions. As writers, it's crucial to remember that words are not just a means to an end but a palette of colors that different readers will see through their unique lenses.
Another example: I recently(ish) wrote a short story titled "The Things Fenton Found" for an anthology. It was (in my head at least) an obvious foray into magical realism: a tale where extraordinary, truly magical events unfold in the most ordinary of worlds. However, when one of the first reviews of the anthology rolled in, imagine my shock when the reviewer described my story as "a remarkable story of love, grieving, and healing after the loss of a dear loved one" (hooray!), then said it was a tough read at first, because "read more like an acid trip," with a main character seemingly high on drugs, hallucinating things that obviously never happened.
Wow. How did the reviewer get it so wrong? Or how did I? Chuckling a bit, I told all this to my wife, only to find her interpretation was yet another world apart. She saw the story as a deep dive into the psyche of someone grappling with grief, using hallucinations as a coping mechanism.
Three interpretations, all wildly different, yet each reader found their truth within the same story.
This brings us to an essential realization: as authors, we're often blind to the myriad ways our stories unfold in readers' minds. We might be steering the ship with a clear destination in sight, but our readers are on their own journeys, navigating through the words with their compasses. It's a humbling and somewhat terrifying thought. We craft our narratives with care, imbue them with our truths and experiences, and then release them into the wild, where they take on lives of their own.
So, how do we navigate this sea of interpretation? How do we ensure clarity without sacrificing the richness of our prose or the depth of our narratives? The answer isn't straightforward, but it's not out of reach either. It involves a delicate balance of understanding, empathy, and a willingness to see our words through the eyes of others.
One of the first steps is to embrace feedback. Yes, even the kind that makes you squirm in your seat. Feedback is a window into the reader's mind, a glimpse of how your words resonate (or don't) with others. It's also a mirror reflecting your blind spots, those areas in your writing where the message might have become muddled or lost altogether.
Clarity in writing is not about dumbing down your prose or stripping it of its beauty. It's about being mindful of the images and emotions your words evoke. It's about understanding that the same phrase can dance differently in someone else's mind. It's about respecting the reader's perspective and guiding them through your narrative with a gentle hand, ensuring they don't lose their way in the forest of your imagination.
Every story is a journey, and every journey needs a map. The structure of your narrative is that map. It guides the reader through the twists and turns of your plot, the peaks and valleys of your character development, and the vast landscapes of your setting. A well-structured story is like a well-lit path through a dense forest—it doesn't remove the mystery or the beauty of the surroundings but provides enough light for the traveler to appreciate the journey without getting lost.
1. Outline with Care: Start with an outline that balances the beats of your story with the natural rhythm of your narrative. Ensure that each chapter, each paragraph, and even each sentence serves a purpose and moves the story forward. If you're a "pantser," that's totally fine...but be willing to be that much more ruthless when it comes to revisions.
2. Pacing is Key: Pay attention to pacing. A story that moves too fast can be as confusing as one that drags. Find the rhythm that matches the heartbeat of your narrative and stick to it.
Words are the building blocks of your story. They can create vivid images, evoke deep emotions, and build intricate worlds. But the wrong word, or even the right word used in the wrong way, can jolt the reader out of the story, breaking the spell you've woven with your narrative.
1. Precision is Your Friend: Be precise in your choice of words. Look for the word that best captures the essence of what you're trying to convey. Sometimes this means choosing simple language over flowery prose; other times, it means finding that perfect, unique word that no other word could replace.
2. Context Matters: Consider the context in which words are used. A word can have different connotations for different people, so be mindful of the wider cultural and personal contexts of your audience. You may have the social life of Gollum, but writing (at least for profit/an audience) is always collaborative. Ignore that fact at your peril.
1. Beta Readers and Feedback: Use beta readers from diverse backgrounds to provide feedback on your story. They can offer insights into how different people perceive your narrative.
2. Revise with Empathy: When revising your work, try to detach yourself from your intimate knowledge of the story and read it as if you were encountering it for the first time. Where might you be confused? Don't just look for rationales of why something "works"...look for arguments against the validity of each page, paragraph, sentence, and word. You'll edit better the more you're willing to stop arguing for your work and start looking for ways to make it fall apart...and then fixing them before your story goes out into the wide world!
1. Intentional Ambiguity: If you choose to use ambiguity, do so intentionally. Be clear about what you're leaving ambiguous and why.
2. Clarity in Ambiguity: Even in ambiguity, there's a need for clarity. Ensure that while the interpretation might be open, the narrative leading to that point is clear and understandable.
I know "be clear about ambiguity" sounds odd, but it's important. If your readers sense you've been ambiguous because a) you know the answers and b) you trust them to reach the answers as well, you're probably golden. If either of those facets is missing, you're screwed.
1. Embrace Revisions: Don't be afraid to revise your work. No matter how many people say it, it just ain't so: the words you write are in NO way "your babies." Speaking as a dad, I know that if you hurt a kid, those hurts can be hard to fix. But words are different. When we attack them, belittle them, cut them down to size, and then build them back up again...they are almost always better for the experience. Each revision is an opportunity to improve and clarify your narrative.
2. Feedback is Gold: Cherish the feedback you receive. It's a gift that offers a glimpse into how your words are perceived by others.
1. Understand Your Audience: Know who you're writing for. The clearer you are about your audience's preferences and perspectives, the better you can tailor your narrative to meet their expectations and understanding.
2. Structure with Purpose: Ensure your story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Use an outline to guide your narrative flow and check that each element serves the story's progression.
3. Choose Words Deliberately: Every word should earn its place in your story. Prefer simplicity over complexity when it serves the narrative and be precise in your descriptions and dialogue.
4. Embrace Empathy: Regularly step into your readers' shoes. Try to see your story from their perspective to understand how it might be interpreted.
5. Intentional Ambiguity: If you're using ambiguity, make it a deliberate choice. Ensure that the surrounding context supports the reader in understanding the narrative's direction.
6. Seek and Value Feedback: Engage with beta readers, editors, and peers. Their insights can help you see blind spots and areas where clarity might be lacking.
7. Revise with a Clear Eye: Embrace the revision process as an opportunity to refine and clarify your narrative. Look for inconsistencies, confusing language, and unclear motivations.
8. Read Aloud: Sometimes, reading your work aloud can help you catch complex sentences or awkward phrasing that might confuse readers.
9. Study Clear Writing: Read works known for their clarity. Understand how these authors convey complex ideas simply and effectively.
10. Continuous Learning: Stay informed about writing techniques and reader psychology. The more you understand how people read and comprehend, the better you can connect with your audience.
Here are 10 exercises that you can do at home to practice and enhance the clarity of their writing and communication.
1. The One-Sentence Challenge
Exercise: Take a complex idea from a recent article or book you've read and try to explain it in one clear, concise sentence.
Measurement: Share this sentence with a friend or fellow writer. If they understand the concept without further explanation, you've succeeded!
2. The Paraphrase Practice
Exercise: Choose a paragraph from a challenging text. Write three different paraphrases of it, each time using simpler language and shorter sentences.
Measurement: Read your paraphrases to someone unfamiliar with the text. The best version is the one they understand most easily.
3. The Jargon Buster
Exercise: Write a short piece on a subject you know well, filled with jargon and technical terms. Then rewrite it, replacing all the jargon with everyday language.
Measurement: Have peers compare both versions and rate the clarity from 1-10.
4. The Active Voice Activator
Exercise: Find a piece of your writing that's predominantly in the passive voice. Rewrite it using only active voice.
Measurement: Compare both versions. The active voice version should feel more direct and engaging.
5. The "Why" Game
Exercise: Choose a topic and write a brief explanation of it. Then, ask yourself "Why?" five times, each time diving deeper into the explanation.
Measurement: Present both the original and the deeper explanation to a peer. If they better understand the "why" behind the topic after reading your expanded explanation, you've achieved greater clarity.
6. Time for Precision
Exercise: Write a descriptive paragraph about an everyday object. Then, rewrite it using more precise and vivid language.
Measurement: Show both descriptions to a friend. If they can visualize the object more clearly from the second paragraph, you've improved your precision.
7. The Complexity Cut
Exercise: Write a complex, multi-clause sentence. Then, break it down into simpler, shorter sentences while retaining the original meaning.
Measurement: Compare the readability of both versions using a tool like the Hemingway Editor. Aim for a lower grade level on the second version.
8. The Non-Writing Observation
Exercise: Without writing, observe a scene or object for 5 minutes. Then, write a description from memory, focusing on clear, vivid details.
Measurement: Have someone read your description and then view the scene or object you wrote about. Ask them what they saw that was expected, and what they saw that surprised them.
9. The Feedback Loop
Exercise: Write a short piece, then ask two people to highlight any part they find confusing or unclear. Revise based on their feedback.
Measurement: If the second version has fewer highlights, you've improved clarity. Aim for continuous reduction in highlighted sections with each iteration.
10. The Simplification Sprint
Exercise: Take an editorial or opinion piece and rewrite it for a younger audience, such as middle school students.
Measurement: Share the original and your version with others. If they find your version easier and more enjoyable to understand without losing the essence, you've succeeded.
For each exercise, it's crucial to reflect on the process and outcomes. Consider what strategies worked best for enhancing clarity and how you can apply these lessons to your writing going forward. Regular practice and seeking feedback are key to continuous improvement in writing clarity.
I'm Michaelbrent Collings, an international bestseller and produced screenwriter, as well as a multiple Bram Stoker Award and Dragon Award finalist, and maker of a fair-to-middling chocolate chip waffle.
Check out the posts for writing and publishing tips and tricks, as well as interesting tidbits on writing and the industry. And please join our community below!