Writing Should Be Clear

A story has to be readable. If people can’t understand what a writer saying, then they won’t be able to understand the story. If the story jumps from time period to time period without any clear distinction between times, without any way to clue the reader of the time shift, then the reader won’t know what is going on. If the writer writes in an obscure dialect that the reader has no way of knowing without anything to assist the reader in determining the meaning of expressions and words, then the reader won’t know what is happening. If the writer refers to the same character different ways constantly in the story, then the reader won’t know who the character is.

When I talk about writing clear, I am talking about three things really:
Clarity in Language
Continuity of events
Consistency in names and lables

Clarity in Language

Clarity is so important in writing that it should go without saying, yet writers constantly forget about it. A writer gets so caught up in character, plot, and scene, that they don’t pay attention to the effect that their words have on the reader.

Technical Writing rules on Clarity:
In Technical Writing, Clarity is extremely important. Because the core of Technical Writing is delivering information that is supposed to be used in some way, it has to be clear. It has to be in a language and dialect that the people reading it can understand. Technical Writing tends to lack dialectic flavoring and colorful expressions. This is why user manuals have multiple translations (though the writer doing the translating has to be careful that the words they use actually mean what they think they mean and haven’t become obsolete).

When you write, take note of words that you use. Many writers do write in a local dialect. In some cases this is fine and adds flavor to the book. But it can be a problem.

I’ll give you an example that almost everyone will recognize: the Lord of the Rings.

When I was younger, maybe fifteen or sixteen, I tried to read the Hobbit and a few of Tolkien’s other stories. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past the first few pages. Because Tolkien wrote his stories in the language and dialect of his fictitious Middle Earth, a dialect and language I simply wasn’t familiar with, I couldn’t understand what I was reading enough to continue.

Now, I understand that Tolkien’s stories had to be written this way. These stories are the epitome of what is known as the milieu (a story that is more about a world than about characters or an event). While the Lord of the Rings is certainly an epic story, what Tolkien really wanted to do was set up a mythological history, creating a world that would feel real. If the stories weren’t written the way they were, then something would have been lost in Tolkien’s work.

What Tolkien did, though, should be the exception, not the rule. If you are going to write in dialect and include words that we don’t use anymore or make up words of your own, then you need to have ways to clue your reader into what those words are. Many writers do this in the form of a glossary. This is fine, and it certainly gives readers a complete understanding of terms and words. I enjoy reading them, actually. But writers seem to depend on them, to the deteriment of their story. Breaking to look up a word breaks the flow of the narrative and for a time removes the reader from the world of the story. It reminds them that they’re reading a story, and this is the cardinal sin of fictional writing. Better is to give them contextual clues of meaning or otherwise find a way as the narrator to give the reader the meaning. If you want to include the glossary later for deeper understanding, then that is fine.

Continuity of Events

Language and dialect aren’t the only failings of fiction writers.

Have you ever read a story that has an event taking place, then suddenly someone is doing something in the scene who wasn’t there when the scene began. After a few minutes, you realize that you aren’t even in the same place. By the time the scene wraps up and moves back into the original scene you think you’ve seen a flash back of some kind, but you’re so confused by the lack of transitions that you’re not sure what is happening.

Other writers are cleverer about this. They give you spaces to indicate scene breaks. But they don’t give you any information in the scenes that indicate you’re in a different time period, or when that time is. How old is the character? Did this take place before or after other scenes? The writer thinks that by giving a scene break he is indicating something is different. But the reader already expects something different. If the writer isn’t clear about what is different, then the reader is just confused. Confused readers rarely stay readers.

Technical Writing rules on Continuity: In Technical Writing if you change topic, you have to be clear. You do this with the use of headings and sub-headings and grouping information together into items that relate. Chapters, sections, and sub-sections are formed this way. If you are giving instructions, then you give them linearly, starting at the beginning of the task and ending at the end. You don’t get half way through the task then talk about another optional step at the beginning. You give all optional beginning steps at the beginning.

Consistency in Names and Labels

Another way writers are unclear is in how they refer to characters. In a workshop class, one student wrote a scene in which a single minor character was referred to with four different expressions over the span of only a couple of paragraphs. What this did to me as a reader was caused me to have to go over the section many times to clarify in my mind who was doing what.

As a writer, while a character may have a nickname and endearing terms used by other characters, you the narrator need to always refer to them the same way. When other names are used by other characters to refer to them, you as the narrator need to make sure the reader is aware of exactly who is referred to. But the term you as the narrator use to refer to the character needs to be clear and memorable.

You’ve heard the rule of not repeating the same number of syllables in all of your names? If you have a Bob, Mike, Nick, and Tom all in one story, then these characters will begin to run together in the reader’s mind. It becomes hard for the reader to distinguish them. Bob and Mike should know a Stanley. A Katherine and Adrian should know a Dave or an Andy. When you as the writer refer to a character, the reader should know exactly who you are referring to and shouldn’t confuse them with another character (unless they are meant to because of identity issues in the plot, but again this is the exception, not the rule).

Technical Writing rules on Consistency: In Technical Writing, you have to be consistent in what you call things. If your instructions are to “Press the ‘Play’ button” then the button on the device needs to say “Play”. You can’t refer to a display screen as the “LCD display” in one step and just the “Screen” in another. The reader may be confused what you’re talking about and may wonder if something is missing. If it is an LCD display, always refer to it that way. If it is just a screen, always refer to it that way. Don’t mix and match descriptive terms about the same item. If you’re dealing with graphs and other displays, then make sure that the labels on the graph or display is the same as the term used in the text. And if you abbreviate, then define the Abbreviation the first time it is used.

If you have these three things, Clarity, Continuity, and Consistency, then you’ve gone a long way to crafting a good work.

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  1. #1 by seetarn on September 2, 2012 - 10:40 am

    Hey lynn, that is so nice of you. Actually my book is out and is available on Amazon, it is titled ‘The Cup of Life-A journey towards self contemplation’. My website has the synopsis on the book, and feedback on flipkart will give you some more insight into what lies within the book. Do let me know your email id, since I’m planning to make a newsletter based on the topics of my book, which I can circulate between the reading community..and fellow authors.. the links to Amazon and Flipkart and as below. Will surely add you via Facebook, glad to have met you..
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Life-Seeta-Rajesh-Nawagekar/dp/9380619448/ref=la_B008TJ9J0G_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346582343&sr=1-1 and reviews on flipkart http://www.flipkart.com/cup-life-9380619448/p/itmd9nfphqrgczp2?pid=9789380619446&icmpid=reco_pp_same_book_book_1#read-reviews

  2. #2 by seetarn on July 4, 2012 - 2:39 pm

    Very informative post there lynn…fortunately I’ve used all the advice that you have given here for my upcoming novel…great..thanks for the detailed guideline..it really helps…take care..

    • #3 by lynnperretta on July 27, 2012 - 2:06 am

      Thank you. I’m glad that the guideline helps, and I wish you best on your novel. If you would like, you’re welcome to share anything you want to about the novel as you get closer to completing it. You can share it here or on my wall on Facebook and I’ll share it with my followers and friends.

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