A couple of weeks ago, I began a series of posts that defines my "Must Haves" in writing. Most of them come from Gary Provost's 1984 article, "The Seven Beacons of Excellent Writing," and the first was Brevity. Today, it's Clarity.
At this point in my career, clarity is the Must Have I'm most conscious of. Far too often, I find myself plugging away at my writing, knowing exactly what is going on with my characters and plot, and yet when I receive feedback on it from other authors, I get this question: "Huh?" That response tells me I haven't said exactly what I mean, and I must now go back through the section and rewrite it until it is clear.
To quote Provost: "the good writer makes his meaning as clear as possible. He leaves no room for doubt about what is being read and he is not vague except when he has a good reason (bold & italics added)."
Here are a few clarifying tips:
1. Replace pronouns with exact nouns if appropriate. Instead of writing "He put it over there," write "Tom put the garden hose under the oak tree."
2. Tell the reader right up front who is doing what and when. For instance, don't write a sentence like this as your opening line or throughout your opening paragraphs:
He opened the package, and when he saw what was inside, he collapsed.
Sometimes new writers believe vagueness creates suspense, but the truth is, it may irritate and will probably confuse the reader.
3. While it's important to avoid repetition whenever possible, don't be afraid to repeat for clarification. For instance, if you write "Mom and Susan went to Broulims. She bought some furniture polish," your reader might not know who "She" is. Instead, write your second sentence as "Susan bought some furniture polish." This is also important in dialogue. If you're not sure your reader will know who's talking, repeat the speaker's name as much as necessary.
4. Finally, being direct is okay. Good, even. I don't know why, perhaps it's due to my poetry training or my school, literary, reading studies, but whatever the reason, I sometimes find myself alluding to my meaning, rather than saying straight out what I mean. When I do this, my readers's responses always contain, "Huh?"
Like I said before, that response is not a good thing, and I then know it's time to rewrite. To clarify.