Please welcome my guest, fabulous author Catherine E. McLean. Catherine is the author of Revision is a Process. She is sharing her two-part series with us on improving upon writing and taking the frustration out of self-editing. Today her focus will be on clarity. This is a perfect post for November as many authors (including myself) are immersed in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWri) and can benefit from these writing tips!
Today she discusses how to improve upon clarity. She will return to the blog on November 28th for Part 2 of her series.
William Zinsser/ON WRITING WELL – “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks . . . It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.”
On Writing Well – Clarity and Clutter
Part 1 – Clarity
So, exactly what keeps a reader reading from one paragraph to the next?
What is strength?
To be sure, these things have to do with writing understandable sentences, but for that sentence to be understandable, it must, first of all, have clarity. Take a look at these two sentences:
1) The door chimed as she entered the shop.
2) As she pushed the shop’s door open, it grazed the bell-chimes mounted on the lintel.
Both contain the Red Flag Word “as” but in two different positions in the sentence. Now, which one of the sentences instantly provided you with an image in your mind? Answer—the second one.
But you say, you didn’t see anything wrong with the first one? Let’s look at that sentence.
What’s confusing is that the door is chiming. Doors are usually very solid items, so how could it make a sound other than to creak on its hinges? Logically, a door cannot be a chime or make a chiming sound.
Logically (and never forget your reader is a LOGICAL PERSON), there had to be something else that triggered the chime sound, but what? As written, the reader is forced to guess. (Readers should never be forced to guess incorrectly.) So, what happens if they guess wrong? More than likely, in the reader’s eyes and mind, the story fails to be enjoyable, and the writer has lost credibility.
Secondly, the cause-effect sequence is reversed.
How do I know this? Because of that little Red Flag Word of warning, which is “as.” Nine times out of ten when “as” appears in a clause near the end of a sentence, that sentence has a reversed cause-effect sequence.
What that means is that the mind of the person reading the sentence is forced for an instant to stop and adjust “the movie in the mind” so the passage makes logical sense. After all, isn’t it logical that a person would enter a shop by opening a door and then a chime go off announcing the door’s opening?
Now look again at that second sentence and how the sequence of what happens flows with clarity and logic. The reader can easily visualize what takes place. No stopping, not even for a nanosecond, and no exiting the story world to figure things out or guess. Thus there is strength in the sentence, which keeps the reader reading.
Do yourself a favor and do a search-find for “as”
(type in a space as space, otherwise you’ll find words with as in them like was and tasted, etc.). How many instances of “as” did you find? Do you have crops of (sometimes called “clusters of”) as? Are you overusing the word, after all, if you look in a good dictionary, you’ll find “as” stands in for other words. For clarity, it is best that “as” is not used for a stand-in.
All that repetition aside, and eliminating “as if” and “as ____ as” phrases, what’s left? Likely “as clauses.” Are any “as” clauses at the middle or end of a sentence? Move those to the beginning of the sentence so there is a far better constructed, cause-effect sequence.
If you move the clause to the start of the sentence, or if you find “as” at the start of sentences, look at them anew. Can you reword to eliminate “as” and gain better clarity and imagery for your reader?
I collect statistics from my students and other writers on the total use ratio of “as” (counting ALL uses for “as”). For instance, the fewest uses was 1 “as” every 627 words. The worst statistic so far is 1 “as” every 27 words. Considering an average sentence is said to be 20 words—that’s 1 “as” per sentence.
Now, how about you? What’s your “as” ratio? Please share it with a comment.
ABOUT CATHERINE E. MCLEAN
Catherine E. McLean’s lighthearted, sci-fi short stories have appeared in hard cover and online anthologies and magazines. Her books include JEWELS OF THE SKY (sci-fi adventure), KARMA & MAYHEM (paranormal fantasy romance), HEARTS AKILTER (a fantasy/sci-fi romance novella), and ADRADA TO ZOOL (a short story anthology). She lives on a farm nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania. In the quiet of the countryside, she writes tales of phantasy realms and stardust (fantasy, futuristic, and paranormal) where a reader can escape to other worlds for adventure and romance. She also is a writing instructor and workshop speaker.
Website for Writers: http://www.WritersCheatSheets.com
Links for REVISION IS A PROCESS:
Amazon.com – https://www.amazon.com/dp/0988587440
Barnes & Noble – http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/revision-is-a-process-catherine-e-mclean/1126295618