‘Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.’
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 4.116
The Oxford dictionary defines clarity as:
The quality of being clear, in particular:
The quality of being coherent and intelligible
The quality of being easy to see or hear; sharpness of image or sound
In fiction writing, as in any other type of writing, you need to be clear – your words, your sentences, the pictures you build, must have clarity. Otherwise, who are you writing for? As an author, you have stories you want to share, so you must bear in mind your audience, your reader and what they will do with the words you choose to give them. This doesn’t mean you can’t be clever, that you can’t be creative, that you can’t build wonderful metaphors, use fabulous imagery and weave complex, intricate plots and storylines. But you must have clarity in all you write. What are those ingenious metaphors for? They are there to help your reader understand – to tell your story. What is that beautiful imagery for, if not to help your reader imagine your worlds, your characters, your visions? And if your plot makes no sense, then why should a reader waste time with your work? You are not writing in a vacuum, you are writing for a reader and your reader must know what you are conveying with those words.
So how do you ensure clarity in your writing?
One common issue I deal with all the time when editing is confusion resulting from the use of pronouns such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘his’, ‘her’ etc. It’s crucial that the noun the pronoun is referring to is clear. For example:
The car hit the barrier but it wasn’t damaged.
What wasn’t damaged? What does ‘it’ refer to – the car or the barrier? In this sentence it could be either.
John gave Adam his money.
Whose money? Adam’s? Or John’s? Make sure it’s clear who the pronoun is referring to.
Passive voice can make your writing seem wordy and unnatural. Using active voice makes your words more immediate and gives them energy. Find out more about active vs. passive voice here.
Ditch the clichés
Clichés don’t work in fiction because they are stale and overused. They are phrases other people have made – your story and your characters deserve fresh, new words and phrases that are all their own. Again, think of your reader. If you fill your work with stale old clichés, you give the impression that you can’t be bothered; you can’t be bothered to think of exactly the right words to use, you can’t be bothered to think of something fresh and new, you can’t be bothered to create new phrases and sentences. So why should a reader be bothered with you?
Cut, cut and cut again
One of the most common comments I use when I’m editing is ‘do you need?’ Writers should apply this to every word they write. Do you really, really, really need it? And if not, then cut it. For example:
When she went to the shops that morning, there were crowds of people thronging the streets.
Now if every word matters, what can be got rid of here?
It might be important that she went to the shops that morning, so we’ll leave that in, but you can cut ‘there were’. These two words are hardly ever needed.
When she went to the shops that morning, crowds of people thronged the streets.
So it’s only two words – but it’s two words you don’t need.
The same goes for ‘she felt’, ‘she saw’, ‘she knew’
As she walked to the shops, she saw two cyclists coming towards her.
Why not simply –
As she walked to the shops, two cyclists came towards her.
Another particular pet hate of mine is ‘she began’ or ‘she started’. Why write ‘she began to cough’ instead of ‘she coughed’? Or ‘she began to speak’ instead of ‘she spoke’?
and what about ‘Off’ or ‘off of’?
The short answer is ‘off’.
The long answer is:
You don’t need to say:
She pushed him off of the bridge.
She pushed him off the bridge.
Other words that can often be cut are ‘seemed to’ or ‘appeared to’. Be firm and clear in your writing and your meaning.
She seemed to quiver at the sight of him.
is much better as:
She quivered at the sight of him.
These are just some examples of how you can bring clarity to your work. I’d love to hear other tips and advice.
I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be.
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Another example would be the clarity comma and its relation to restrictive VS non-restrictive construction.
“I went to the park with the big tree.” (You went to one specific park, the park that had a characteristically big tree.)
“I went to the park, with the big tree.” (You went to a random park, and the park happened to have a large tree.)
I’ve also encountered sentences with so many parenthetical elements that it’s nearly impossible to understand grammatically which element is being modified by what—bringing me to adverbs.
“I’m really going to be late.” (You’re making an assertion. You’re quite confident you’ll be late.)
“I’m going to be really late.” (Your lateness is certain, and your wife is gonna be pissed.)
“I’m going to be late, really.” (You’re making a speculation. You may still arrive on time.)
“Really, I’m going to be late.” (Your lateness is certain, but you’d like your boss to let you off.)
Notice how it’s pretty much impossible to know what the author meant for sure in any of the sentences above? Without context, it’s not grammatically possible to know what the author is trying to say. A comma can only help misplaced adverbs so much, but in general, place them as close to the word they modify as possible.
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