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Making It Simpler

If you were receiving personal tutoring from me, I’d be asking questions like "Tell me what you are trying to say in this bit. Can you think of a different way to put that?" Or, "What is the main idea of this part? Do you think what you say here is related to that? What about the last few sentences on this page? How do they support your argument?" Positive questions, rather than criticism are useful in helping you to recognize your own errors and to gradually draw on the innate strength and knowledge that you possess. Eventually you wouldn’t need a tutor at all. You could BE a tutor.

Part of the magic of writing is that you can re-write until you get it right: it’s not a live medium.

Confidence is based on competence; competence is based on having some certainty about what you’re doing. It’s a positive approach.

If you need more confidence, personal tutoring can really help in a short space of time, but you need the right tutor for you.


You can still lose readers at this stage by being unclear.

If you’re worried you're not using the right words, use simpler words. If you’re anxious that your sentences aren't clear, make simpler sentences. If you’re nervous that people won't see your point, make your point simpler. Don’t worry about “not revealing your large vocabulary” -any reader would rather know what you were on about than be lost in multi-syllabic confusions.

Almost all writing problems can be solved by making things simpler.

What makes it complicated for you will make it complicated for the reader. But there’s a really good way of dealing with this. This method has been used for such worldwide classics as The Lord of the Rings and most of C.S. Lewis’s fiction.

Read it aloud.

Yes, talk out loud to yourself if you like, or (more probably) to some understanding friends.

When you reach a paragraph or sentence that just doesn’t sound right, where your communication is unclear, you’ll find a confusing word choice, a broken grammar rule, or your argument goes off the rails at that point. Write down different words, different syntax, change the structure a little. Generally, make it simpler. Reading aloud is a brilliant technique because of an underlying principle which most readers share.

When people read, they usually sound out the words in their heads.

Without appropriate punctuation, especially commas, a sentence will eventually run out of “breath”. Too little punctuation runs the writing ragged; too much makes it full of stops and interruptions mentally. It’s such a useful technique!

So learning punctuation basics and thereby improving clarity is like composing music or tracking with thought itself: periods mark the end of a thought; commas indicate when you want to take a “breath”; semi-colons are where a gesture or dramatic point needs to be made to divide your sentence into two or more thoughts; colons are used to point out an example or list or item; exclamation points are for when you're really excited about something; dashes divide sentences into sub-thoughts.

Losing Focus

If you didn’t create a plan of some sort before you began, or if you lost your focus, then go through your work and write a new outline of it. If you get stuck, or find that it is too hard, your essay or story is probably too complicated for an ordinary reader to follow. Simplify it.

Have someone read the essay or story, or read it aloud again to someone. Then go through this prepared checklist:

Did your listener or reader understand the work?

Are all the paragraphs related to the central theme?

Are all the paragraphs arranged in a logical order? (This can be confusing - what is meant by "logic" in this context? Usually, following the sequence of the text being studied gives an essay a "logical" structure. With fiction, this can be a bit trickier.)

Does each paragraph have one sentence that makes the meaning of the whole paragraph clear?

Does each paragraph have only ONE topic?

Do you repeat large blocks of information in two or more paragraphs?

Still having trouble? Use the following Basics Checklist:

• word choices clear?

• subjects and verbs agree?

• verb tenses consistent and appropriate?

• pronouns agree with subjects for which they substitute?

• punctuation correct?

If you already have a conclusion worked out, use that as the focus. If you don’t have one yet, make a list of possible conclusions. Writing in a rambling fashion which leads nowhere will get you... nowhere. Like a traveller heading through a dense jungle for a mountaintop, it’s important to keep the mountaintop in sight.

Conversely, losing sight of the mountaintop will almost certainly guarantee you getting lost and wandering around aimlessly for ages. Here’s another underlying principle which applies no matter what you’re writing.

If you’re having trouble making things clear, it’s probably because you haven’t yet worked out an ending.

Name your ending; write it out in twenty words or less. Pin down your conclusion or write an outline of the climax of your story.

Many writers have trouble writing because they cannot fully understand the material they are reading. Looking up and fully defining every word you don’t understand in a dictionary will make your progress smoother than you will believe. But be careful: students learning to use a thesaurus often use it excessively and incorrectly in their selection of words. It’s a common mistake by new authors or essay writers: trying to sound clever by swapping a normal word with something they’ve found in a dictionary or thesaurus. Doing this can lose you marks and reduce your clarity.

All synonyms do not mean the same thing.

Each synonym has a subtle nuance of meaning making it distinct from other words -random substitutions of words that merely seem to look better creates oddities and confusions and shows up the real limits of your vocabulary. Choose exactly the right word for the meaning you want.

Want a particular word or thought to stand out or echo in the reader’s mind? Then here’s another tip:

Put the words and ideas you want your reader to remember at the beginning or the end, not in the middle.

This applies to paragraphs, sections and chapters. Openings and endings of things tend to be remembered. Odd? That’s just the way it is, by actual survey.

Using Diagrams and Diaries

Still can’t get ideas clear, or just can’t think? Maps and diagrams organize information visually -hierarchical relations and chains of thought can be seen more clearly this way. At the top of the map or diagram you should have the conclusion, or main idea of the essay or story. Below that, you should list supporting ideas, and below that, the details that you plan on using. Think of it as a builder’s blueprint, if it helps.

Here are a few quick words about the phenomenon known as “writers’ block”.

Sometimes you might just “dry up” and have no more to write. What’s happened is that you’ve “poured out” too much without re-filling your fuel tank. All writers need to refuel, and the best fuel, no matter what you’re writing, is Life. So, even if you’re writing something entirely unrelated to real life, here’s the most internationally successful answer to writer’s block:

Keep a diary.

Everything that happens to you and around you is potential “fuel”. But if you’ve “run dry” , stop writing for a while and go and experience something -do something different, go and absorb what life has to offer for a short period. You will be amazed at how much material you suddenly have on hand.

Some writers’ block actually stems from a hidden or submerged fear of or anxiety about your audience or readership. It might help to remember this:

Your audience, whether made up of examiners or potential publishers, does not want to tear you apart; it is made up of people who are seeking something.

Your readership is made up of people who, like you, sometimes get tired, are sometimes bored, and perhaps, on occasion, become embarrassed or annoyed. Only a tiny percentage are actively hostile. Use your common sense, put yourself in the place of your readers, and realise that they, like you, are just human beings.

What’s more, as you’ve hopefully begun to learn in this material, these human beings are not just seeking some vague thing, but are, consciously or otherwise, hunting out very precise structures and recurring patterns. There is much more to these patterns than we have yet had time to explore, but let’s start with two key concepts that might seem obvious but which are the foundation of whole sets of other ideas:

Words have power -combined with other words, that power is either diluted or enhanced.

Words can either support each other or fight for the reader's attention.

There’s a lot to take in, isn’t there? A lot more could be said about words and their power. A lot more IS said in the material on this website.

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