Let Me Make This Perfectly Clear

Three hundred years ago, French writer Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux said, “Whate’er is well-conceived is clearly said.” I hate to dispute with a man too dead to defend himself, but, alas, Nicolas was wrong. Many beginning writers conceive a scene quite clearly in their minds. Between mind and page, however, clarity gets lost, and the resulting paragraphs leave the reader going, “Huh?”

Clarity is not a much-praised virtue in fiction. Editors, reviewers and readers are more likely to praise a story’s interesting characters, exciting plot or profound message. But if the story is not clearly written, none of these things will come through. In fact, a confused reader may not even finish the story. Clarity is the unnoticed foundation of all good writing.

Let’s look at the more common ways clarity is violated, and how you can avoid them.

Check your pronouns

At the risk of sounding like we’re back in school examinations, read the following short scene and then answer the questions:

Terry Jones waited in the physics lobby for Sam Robertson, the department chair, and an expert on nuclear reactors. The clock read three; he was late. The department secretary looked up, smiled, and asked, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” “No, thanks,” Terry said. “It’s fresh.” “I’d probably just spill it on my new dress.” “It’s a pretty dress,” he said.

How many people is Terry waiting for? Who is late? What genders are Terry and the secretary, and how far into the scene were you when you decided that?

Many readers assume that Terry is waiting for three people: Robertson, the department chair and the reactor expert. Others assume that all these descriptors apply to the same person. A few readers even assume there are two people, department chair Robertson and an outside expert. All this confusion could have been avoided by simply writing the sentence this way:

Terry Jones waited in the physics lobby for Sam Robertson, who was the department chair as well as an expert on nuclear reactors.

So why didn’t the writer do it this way in the first place? Because in his mind, it was perfectly clear whom Terry was waiting for: one very intelligent person. The writer imagines Terry fidgeting there in the lobby. But the reader does not have access to the author’s mind. The reader sees only what’s on the page.

This is why the essence of writing is to become the reader. Let me say that again, because it’s vitally important: The essence of writing is becoming the reader. You must see what he sees, and he only sees what you give him.

Consider that second question: Who is late? The author has given us, “He was late.” But—as far as we know at this point—both Terry Jones and Sam Robertson could be male, and so “he” might describe either one. Again, the author knows who’s late. It just hasn’t been made clear to us due to pronoun confusion, a particularly common muddle. Watch those pronouns; if a scene includes two or more characters of the same gender, use names instead of he or she whenever there is the slightest chance of confusion.

And while we’re on the subject of gender, with names like Terry or Pat, equally common for men and women, you should identify your character’s gender immediately. Otherwise, readers may picture the wrong sex, and then have to go back and revise their mental pictures—which may bounce some readers out of the story.

Also identify gender if you’re writing against stereotypes. Most readers assume that a secretary is female. This perception may be sexist or inaccurate or dumb, but it exists. So if your secretary is male or your firefighter is female, let us know right away so we can accurately visualize what’s going on.

Rewritten for clarity, our story opening now reads like this:

Terry Jones waited in the physics lobby for Sam Robertson, who was the department chair as well asan expert on nuclear reactors. The clock read three; Terry knew she was late for this appointment. The department secretary, easily the most handsome guy Terry had ogled in a long while, looked up, smiled, and asked, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” “No, thanks,” she said. “It’s fresh.” “I’d probably just spill it on my new dress.” “It’s a pretty dress,” he said.

Now we know who’s present, what their genders are, and who’s late. And, through Terry’s thoughts, we even have small bits of characterization to help us know her better.

Set the scene

Clarity applies to environment as well as characters. No, you don’t have to exhaustively describe every hallway your protagonist walks down (in fact, you shouldn’t). But when you give setting details, they must enlighten rather than confuse. Consider the following:

Jon went downstairs to the kitchen. While brewing the coffee, he watched Pat curled around Greta, snoring loudly in a sleeping bag. Jon grimaced and took his coffee back upstairs.

When I asked the writer of that paragraph why people were sleeping in the kitchen, she said, surprised, “They’re not.” Further conversation clarified that the ground floor of the house was a single “great room,” and Jon merely looked over the low counter dividing kitchen from living room, where Pat lay sleeping. This was clear in the author’s mind, but not on the page. The author had failed to become the reader.

In fact, this paragraph abounds in confusion. Greta, I learned two pages later, is not a person; she’s Pat’s dog. It wasn’t Greta who snored, but Pat, who is male (gender confusion again!). And Jon’s grimace, which could have meant anything, had a very specific meaning: He was fastidious about germs and Greta is a very scruffy, unwashed Samoyed.

Try rewriting the paragraph to include all these facts. Keep the prose compact, but give us a clear picture to visualize, without muddles. When you’re done rewriting, compare your version to the one below:

Jon went downstairs to brew coffee and grimaced in disgust. In the living room beyond the small kitchen, Pat snored loudly in his sleeping bag, his long body curled around his dog, Greta. The Samoyed’s coat was matted with dirt, leaves, and probably fleas. Some people had no sense of hygiene. Jon took his coffee back upstairs.

Now we can visualize the scene. And, as in the previous example, clarity has yielded the bonus of improved characterization.

Pull out a few pages of your latest writing project. Read them and try to become your reader—someone who does not have your own picture of what’s going on. Is there enough information on the page for the reader to know how many people are present, what gender they are and what they’re doing? Are reasons for actions (such as Jon’s grimace) clear? Can a reader visualize enough of the setting to follow the characters’ movements? If not, rewrite.

Clarity matters. As a writer, you need it in your mind, clearly visualizing each scene. But that’s only the first step. You must then transfer that clarity to the page, so that your reader also can picture—and enjoy—all the interesting events of your story.

From the September 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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