Monday, April 8, 2013

Say What? How to Make Your Writing Clearer

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As a parent, of small children, I'm constantly trying to make myself heard and understood. Also, like most parents, I'm constantly repeating the words, "no," "don't," "stop," and-- "I already said no!"

Then one day I heard this piece of advice. Children hear you better if you speak in the positive. Huh? What kind of loony new age thing is this?

Basically, it's a way to phrase yourself. Instead of saying, "don't run with a sharp ax", you say, "walk." Instead of saying "don't touch my house of cards," say, "keep your hands down."
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So I tried it. And it worked! (when they follow directions, that is) My goal became clear, I have a quarter second of their attention and who knows what I'll be saying when that 1/4 second comes around, so every word has to convey the right idea. If I say "no running" and all they hear is "running," guess who is going to keep running? That's right. But if I say "walk", then we have no issue.

We should always strive to make ourselves easily understood as parents, writers, people. Writers, like parents, also have precious few moments to urge our audience to move forward in the story and wasted words are a great way to wear them out before we get to the punchline.

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There are a few subtle ways to clean up your writing to convey the story so the writing is clean, comprehensible, and easily digested. After all, we want our audience to get lost in our words, not wonder why there's so many unnecessary ones.

First, use the positive form. When you're writing, make your statements assertive. Using the negative form of writing sounds weaker, less committed.

Example: He was not usually the good looking one.  Change it to: He was usually the ugly one. See how it changes the tone?

Second, use an active voice. Like the positive form, this is clearer and has more of an impact. You want your writing to turn heads, not fuel naps.

Example (and one from my own personal manuscript- oops):
Her clothes were hung according to weather and hue. The clothes are the doing the action here- lame and darn near impossible. Change it to: She hung her clothes according to weather and hue.

Third, get rid of the really, really, just there because you'd use it in real life words. Just because you say it when you're on the phone with your sister doesn't mean it should be written that way.

Example: The guy with the really cool bike was so rich. Unless you're like, writing the screen play for Clueless II, let's not. Change to: The guy with the custom Harley was a billionaire.

Fourth, KILL the adverbs. This is like a game. Find an adverb, wield your 'delete' button or red pen like a sword, and KILL IT! But, you need the adverb? Then your verb isn't strong enough on its own. Find a better one.

Example: She snottily stuck out her tongue as he walked away. You don't have to tell us she's snotty. The action tells us that. Simply omit the adverb. Or, if there was an unusual way she did it, with hatred or malice, show it in the verb, such as: She stabbed out her tongue as he walked away. Ouch.

This is a short list of things that can make your writing transition from convoluted to clear. In every story, there are things to consider when you make edits. Style, dramatic effect, character traits, and using vocabulary and writing style are just a couple of your tools for manipulating these elements.

One thing to consider, and the exception to nearly every rule, is dialog. When characters are speaking, these rules are often broken, for good cause. If it is part of our character's personality, then perhaps the rules must be broken to allow the reader to understand their nuances. And that's okay.

Ultimately, we have the power and right to scribe whatever words we want onto the paper. No lightening will strike, your English teacher will not rap on your door and give your manuscript an F. But, for those of us that enjoy reaching our readers, these elements help them see past the words to the story that inspired them.

For more tips, please read the small, digestible, and infinitely helpful tool, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.

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