Once upon a time, there was a self-publishing podcast from which sprung a Facebook group, which evolved into The Indiepreneur Writers Collective. Within the group, a few dedicated editors started a weekly thread sharing editing advice with the community.
Today, I’m sharing a tip from Laura Martone. Laura is a freelance editor, novelist, and former travel guide author.
In late October, I posted some advice about consistency, which many people consider to be one of the “five C’s” of good copyediting. The others include clarity, correctness, conciseness, and comprehensibility.
Naturally, these aren’t the only qualities for which reliable editors and self-editing authors strive when revising and proofreading a manuscript, but they can certainly help you craft an article, essay, story, or book that readers will appreciate and better understand.
Since I’ve already tackled the concept of consistency, I thought it might be helpful to focus on clarity this week.
After all, clarity of language enables you to make your content (whether fiction or nonfiction) more digestible for readers. True, some subjects, disciplines, and genres (such as literary fiction and historical romance) lend themselves to lengthy passages, complex syntax, and purple prose, but in general, you should aim for clear, easy-to-grasp writing.
That certainly doesn’t mean you must delete all descriptive sentences, cleverly-worded phrases, or mysterious elements from your manuscript. Staying true to your voice and style is paramount, as is crafting a story or nonfiction piece that compels readers to keep turning the page. But if your writing is rife with cumbersome, rambling paragraphs and complicated, unfamiliar words, readers could spend so much time rereading certain passages or referring to a dictionary that they might ultimately give up on the book.
So, whether you’re writing a how-to manual, a space opera novella, or something else altogether, you should strive for distinct language and clear meaning – if only to keep your readers from wandering away before the end. Of course, deciding when to focus on clarity will depend on each writer. If you’re a “pantser” who drafts via dictation, you might save this exercise for the revision process. Conversely, if you’re a “plotter,” you could spare yourself a lot of time, energy, and aggravation by aiming for clarity from the start.
Either way, here are six tips for writing and editing with clarity in mind:
Have a plan
Whether you consider yourself a pantser, a plotter, or something in between, it helps to know what you want to express before you start writing. For nonfiction authors, finalizing your topic, intention, and basic structure can certainly streamline the writing process. Likewise, fiction authors can benefit from understanding the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a given story. Having an elementary outline or at least a general plan can offer you a starting point as well as some much-needed guidance, even if you ultimately deviate from your original intentions.
Target your audience
No matter if your current work is fiction or nonfiction, understanding your readers will help you to maintain focus during the writing and editing process. Yes, your audience might run the gamut of gender, education, and interests, but keeping a targeted set of readers in mind will enable you to choose the diction, sentence structure, genre tropes, and other critical elements that will ultimately meet your audience’s expectations. If possible, take some time to read a wide array of popular books in your chosen genre, subgenre, or subject matter – perhaps the best way to educate yourself about your ideal readers.
Clarify your intentions
Unless you write poetry, you should avoid vague or poetic language, or else, you’ll run the risk of being misunderstood by your readers. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, try to explain your intentions and meanings with clear, succinct words and expressions – and present information in an organic, natural way (that is, when the reader needs such details). Otherwise, you might confuse or overwhelm your readers. Another helpful technique is to include one-sentence paragraphs on occasion (especially for important information), which can break up dense content and make the text more digestible. Employing clichés and idioms can sometimes serve as shortcuts for readers, but keep their use to a minimum, as they can make your content seem stale and unoriginal.
Simplify your language
Despite living in a world dominated by social media and short-attention spans, writing styles differ greatly. Some authors prefer punchy, fast-paced writing, while others (particularly those of a more literary or historical bent) tend to favor more complex language and sentence structure – and of course, plenty of in-between styles abound. Luckily, readers and their tastes vary just as widely. Nevertheless, the reading experience can become more seamless if you avoid long, incomprehensible words, rely on short sentences whenever possible, and define any unfamiliar terms or expressions. You can also streamline your writing by eliminating fillers and crutch words, such as unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
Use editing programs
To assist you in streamlining your prose, opt for editing programs like Hemingway Editor or Grammarly. Both can help to trim the dead weight from your writing by highlighting wordy sentences, superfluous adjectives and adverbs, complicated diction, passive voice, and other elements that could confuse your readers and disrupt the pace of your story.
Read it aloud
No doubt you’ve heard this advice before, but in case it helps to hear it again… During the revision process, be sure to read your manuscript aloud. If anything seems too cumbersome to say, it’s likely too confusing to read as well. As novelist Elmore Leonard famously quipped, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Clear, unencumbered writing is powerful and enticing, compelling readers to devour the pages before them. But this skill takes time to master, so be patient with yourself. As with most things worth achieving, it gets easier and better with practice.
As always, I hope you’ve found this post useful, but if I’ve forgotten any important guidelines regarding clarity in editing, please leave a comment below. Thanks – and happy writing!