nothing like clear communication to get a point across. Even literary
fiction writers must know what they want to say and how best to say it,
how to obscure and reveal. For clarity in revelation, we’ll explore and
provide fixes for four common problems that keep writers from
publication: clichés, wordiness, muddiness, and disorder.
Two common clichés types are word choice and plot choice. Clichéd word
choices are common because they’re easy to write and understand. (One
or two are in the beginning of this column.) But to write with style
and keep the reader’s interest, clichés aren’t recommended, except
sometimes in dialogue to convey character. Plot clichés, where nothing
original happens, are deadly.
You know a clichéd phrase because you know a cliché. They’re easy to
spot, especially if you’ve stepped away from the work before editing.
You know a clichéd plot choice when a scene or the story itself is
predictable. No one wants to read a piece and think, “I knew that would
happen,” or, worse, “I could have written it better.”
fix a clichéd word choice, ask yourself what you want to convey. Take,
for example, the phrase off the beaten track. It
could mean a place not easy to reach, not well-known, or hard to find.
Ask yourself which meaning, or another, you intend and revise
accordingly. For example, Mepkin Abbey outside Charleston, South
Carolina, could be considered off the beaten track, but it’s better
represented as a “botanical retreat along the Cooper River.” For a
clichéd plot choice, for example, starting a story with someone waking
up, conduct a what-if scenario for characters and plot. For characters,
consider a possible flaw or secret. For plot, raise the stakes and
increase the conflict. This will enhance the characters, too.
Verbosity comes in variations. The words can be unnecessary,
overabundant, or repetitious. Repetition can also present as recurring
text or scenes that don’t add meaning or depth.
One way to spot this problem is confusion, annoyance, and ultimately,
avoidance. Readers will lose interest in descriptions or scenes that
feel familiar, or skip them altogether. If they really get annoyed,
they’ll put the book down unfinished. If your trusted critique group or
writing buddy has these reactions, there’s a problem.
Cut unnecessary words, use
contractions, and expand your vocabulary by reading widely and using a
thesaurus to make one
count for two or more. For sections or
scenes that recur without added meaning or depth, ask yourself these
is this scene or story really about—why did you create
it? How can it be revised to reveal character and advance plot,
preferably both at once?
Anyone who’s read a legal document has read muddiness, or lack of
clarity, even if the writer was hoping for the opposite result. As the
word implies, muddy writing is dull writing.
Big words when smaller are better, long clauses, imprecise wording,
mixed metaphors, and inaccurate similes all make for unclear prose.
Readers come away confused and feeling like they need to clear their
way to cure lack of clarity is education and knowing what you want to
say even if you’re still figuring out how to say it. Let’s start by
defining metaphors and similes. A metaphor is a word or phrase that’s
used instead of another to suggest an analogy, for example, “drowning
in money.” A simile is figure of speech, often using “like,” that
compares two unlike things, for example, “cheeks like roses.” The cure
for wordiness works here, too.
Readers can overlook this problem in short descriptions, for example, a
character experiencing spring after the seclusion of winter. Jody can
go outside, feel the breeze, see the sun and smell the lilacs. The
order of experience here isn’t essential, except if she closes the
door, then walks outside. Unless Jody’s a ghost, she must go outside
Even in this small example, order can improve the scene. For example:
Jody opened the door and stood on the porch. The breeze carried the
scent of lilacs, and the sun dappled the front lawn. Aside from more
description, this phrasing works better because time and events unfold
in a way that allows Jody’s experience to satisfy her and the reader’s
innate sense of order.
great cure for disorder is doing a timeline. This works well for
scenes, chapters, and plots.
There’s nothing like clarity for
good prose, and in this competitive writing environment, it can help
keep writers out of the rejection pile, too.