5 Tips on Clarity for Writers
Let’s return to the concept of rhythm, mentioned earlier. Rhythm is one of the basic patterns which readers are seeking. Just as in your introductory paragraph you can either pull the reader in or push them away, so you can use this “push-pull” rhythm throughout your work in a very sophisticated way. All great authors do this, from Hemingway to Tolkien, from Shakespeare to the Beowulf poet: back and forth, strength and weakness, horror and comedy, emphasis and non-emphasis, long sentences, short sentences, from the level of words all the way up to the work as a whole.
The subject of rhythm is worth a book in itself. In fact, the principle which lies behind rhythm is explained at length in the book How Stories Really Work.
If you create a strong sense of rhythm and emphasis in your work, starting at a word level, progressing up through a sentence level and then within paragraphs, you will keep a firm grip on your reader’s “hand” throughout the work. Contrast creates rhythm - stark contrast increases pace, subtle contrast decreases pace, ridiculous contrast creates humour, expected contrast creates seriousness.
1. "Choppiness" is the effect of multiple short sentences in a row giving a sense of breathlessness. Multiple, successive elongated sentences one after another gives a sense of never-ending, oxygen-starved snobbery. A short sentence can be a good option for the content you're writing, just as a long one can as well. The answer? Mix them up so that you have some short sentences and some long alternating with each other. This variety will give even more rhythm to your prose.
Create rhythms on every level.
2. Another way to produce effective work is to look over your sentences and pretend that a child will be reading your text. You don't want your reader to struggle to follow your ideas. Keep your meaning simple and easy to understand. It sounds obvious, but revise your sentences one by one to make them friendlier, clearer, more straightforward.
Clarity has a great deal to do with grammar. Unfortunately, as we will see, grammar is crucial.
3. If you are a student, as you edit the grammar of your essay or story, you should particularly focus on the grammar concepts that your teacher has previously marked in your work. Many students receive their work back from the teacher with many notes and advice written all over it to help them specifically to improve -but they just look at the overall mark they’ve been given and don’t even bother to read the advice! The teacher has probably pinpointed exactly what you need to fix. Pay your teacher the courtesy of reading what has been written and try to see how it applies to your work. It’s more likely than not tailor-made to your situation.
It’s sounds obvious to say “Be sure that your essay is grammatically correct”. But there’s a principle at work here:
A teacher is more likely to decrease your grade if he or she is able to justify the decrease because your grammar is wrong. A reader of fiction will devalue your work much more sharply if errors of that kind are found.
Though academic guidelines often officially forbid it, teachers unconsciously drop your grade if they see grammatical errors mounting up. Teachers and examiners are human beings too. Error after error in a piece of work makes it difficult to see through the fog of mistakes to give you a good mark, and in the minds of many teachers, perfect grammar equals a perfect essay. It might seem unfair, but that’s the way the system is at present.
Personally, I’d rather have a piece of work with some errors but exciting ideas and valuable insights than a perfectly presented essay or story with no “zing” or new connections. I’ve seen too many essays that are flawless grammatically but are hollow intellectually. But grammar IS significant and cannot be ignored.
Proofread your essay or story a dozen times before you even consider you’ve finished.
4. Having an argument in an essay or presenting a story and then supporting your views or moving your plot forward begins at word level, moves up through sentence level, progresses through paragraph level and triumphs when all of these stay on track and conclude well and straightforwardly with no errors.
But writers can still make big mistakes when they try to appear clever and get too complicated.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to add to the work, complicating it.
Keep your writing on track by regularly checking to ensure that everything is consistently "backing up" your opening statement or suggestion or theme. Failure to maintain support from word level up creates an impression of “out-of-control-ness” which disturbs your reader: readers want to feel that they are in the hands of a professional who will bring them through successfully to a satisfying and perhaps even moving conclusion.
Sloppiness confuses and annoys readers and leaves them unmoved.
5. Readers want a genuine tone of authority and wisdom. Write powerfully, confidently, actively. Too many sentences beginning with “The...” can kill off your writing -begin with a more exciting word, and make the sentence as dynamic as you can every so often. There’s a simple rule behind this which alone, if applied, can lift your work up by a whole grade:
Where possible, replace inactive verbs with active verbs.
Which would you rather read? A sentence like “The cat sat on the mat”? Or “On the mat, a cat sat”? You get the idea.
Whether you're putting together an essay, a letter to the editor, a novel, or any other kind of work, the above tips will assist you in persuading your readers to stick with you.
The more you do something, the better you tend to get, and writing is no exception to that rule. Over time, your writing will flow more easily. You'll also start to develop a more specific style and tone to your work that couldn't occur if you were writing less frequently.
If you have a few spare minutes, pick up a newspaper or magazine and read an article. Read a book to a child. Or read through a dusty poetry book from a rarely touched shelf. Read instructions or recipes. Read a chapter of a novel you wouldn’t normally touch. The more you read, the more variety you'll encounter. Soon, you'll start incorporating what you read into what you write. You'll find yourself mimicking the things in others that you admired or that had an effect on you, and using new vocabulary words that moved you.
There are two other things you can do which really work in making your writing fresher and your style flexible.
1. Get out of your “comfort zone” by writing something you're not used to tackling. Your mind will be forced to think in new ways.
2. Edit a piece of work for someone else. You'll see habits that you also share when you objectively look over something someone else has written.
Additionally, by editing someone else's writing, you'll be improving your skills as a self-editor. Then, the next time you read through your own work, you'll be able to do a better job of fixing your prose.