If you’re writing an article for a magazine or a novel your end goal is to have what you wrote read and understood. Why is it, then, that when you have a friend or critique group member read a piece they sometimes don’t get it? Are they just thick?
Could be you have an issue with clarity. Maybe you’re overwriting. Maybe you’re using too many million dollar words and not enough “buck and change” words. Regardless, if your reader doesn’t understand what you’re writing, he certainly won’t get any of the deeper meaning you’re shooting for.
Are your words too big?
Impress the reader with your ideas, not with the size of your words. When you have a choice, use the common word over the extraordinary. Avoid showing off your vocabulary.
Caveat: In fiction, characterization may trump this advice. If your protagonist is a professor, her vocabulary will be different than if she’s a high-school dropout.
Tip: Avoid using verbs as nouns. Rather than Seth provided an explanation for why he lied try Seth explained his lie. That’s four fewer words.
Speaking of fewer words
Be religious about cutting the fat. Scour your writing for throat clearing tactics such as:
- Introductory phrases: “The point I’m trying to make is…” Just state the point.
- “Josh estimated that they’d arrive in Minneapolis by roughly 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.” (14 words)
- “Josh estimated they’d arrive in Minneapolis by 4:00 p.m.” (9 words)
Use estimated or roughly, but not both. Use 4 p.m. and not in the afternoon because 4 p.m. is more specific and is clearly in the afternoon.
- “Sarah knew that at her place of employment Jason was knee-deep in advance planning for the next year’s fundraising campaign.” (20 words)
- “Sarah knew her co-worker Jason was knee-deep in planning next year’s fundraiser.” (12 words)
Identifying Jason as her co-worker rather than writing at her place of employment saves words and is clearer. And, isn’t all planning advance planning? You can’t plan after the fact, right?
Clarity is critical, both to keep your reader’s interest and to give your message a greater chance of getting through. When self-editing, look at the size of your words and the amount of words you use. Your readers will thank you.
Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line
Next Thursday: Not only smaller and fewer words, but better word choices enhance clarity.
You’ve touched on the number one problem in writing: too many words, ill-chosen and poorly arranged. Nice, practical advice. Look forward to seeing more of it.
Author of Moe
Thanks Jim. If writer’s could learn this one thing, it would make their writing better.
Yeah–well–some of us are still learning. (I thought that’s why God made editors)