Thursday, June 2, 2011

Clarity in Writing

As I go back through my edits on my various novels, I think to myself WWJD (I know what you're thinking and no, it's not that. I've already asked those questions during my first draft.) It means, "What would Janette Do." One of my favorite writers is Janette Rallison. She has brutally slashed and hacked apart more than one of my stories, and yet I keep going back for more. Why? Because she is brilliant! She really knows writing. Along with voice, style, and point of view, she excels at Clarity.

Clarity is something I've been working for in my writing. I picked up this great little book, called A Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker. In her section on Clarity she outlines 9 ways to make your writing clear:

1. Tighten wordy sentences: Get rid of redundancies, inflated phrases and needless complex structures.

2. Choose active verbs over passive. "As a rule active verbs express meaning more vigorously than their duller counterpart- forms of the verb be."

3. Balance Parallel ideas, such as paired ideas, and series or words or phrases.

4. Add needed words: "Do not omit words necessary for grammatical or logical completeness."

5. Eliminate confusing shifts: This has to do with point of view. Don't head hop. Also Shifts have to do with verb tense. Stay in the same tense.

6. Untangle mixed constructions: The subject and verb should make sense together. For instance: "Social Workers decided that Tiffany's welfare would not be safe living with her mother." Tiffany or her welfare?

7. Repair misplaced and dangling modifiers:
     Misplaced words: these include adverbs if placed in the wrong spot portray the wrong meaning. Her example: Wrong: "There are many pictures of comedians who have performed at Gavins on the wall at." Wow, that must have been hard. Gravity has a way of keeping comedians on the floor. Corrected: "On the walls are many pictures of comedians who have performed at Gavins."
     Dangling modifiers: A modifier that fails to refer to the thing it is modifying.
     Split infinitives: Putting adverbs in between the "to" and "verb" part of a sentence. Such as: Mr. Harris instructed his students to brightly sing at the concert." No, no, no...that just sound silly. Try it this way. "Mr. Harris told his students to sing brightly at the concert." Yes, that sounds so much better.

8. Provide some variety: Okay, this one is just a plain no brainer. Vary your sentence lengths and structures, combine choppy ones, shorten excessively long ones. (I'm guilty of this!). Also vary your sentence openings. I once heard that if you had to pay your editor for the number of time he/she had to take he/she out of our opening sentences, most authors wouldn't get paid. (Maybe that a bit of an exaggeration.)

9. Find an appropriate Voice: This would be one that fits your subject and your audience. You want to be sure and engage your reader.

And there you have it. Diana Hacker in a nutshell. If you'd like more information click here for more information.


  1. While they might not sound good a lot of the time, it's actually a misconception that split infinitives are grammatically incorrect! It comes from some prescriptivists who tried to make English conform to Latin grammar. In Latin, infinitives are one word, so you can't split them. But English isn't Latin!

    And of course, the most famous example of a split infinitive sounds better split: "To boldly go . . ."

    (Also not grammatically incorrect: ending a sentence with a preposition. Another "rule" that came from someone's preference.)

  2. All good stuff, Betsy. Thanks!

  3. Wonderful things to keep in mind as I edit Deadly Gamble. I also am guilty of asking the question, "What would Janette do?", especially when it comes to POV. (Continuity is not one area where I wonder what Janette would do.)


  4. I think I need to brush up on modifiers. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  5. Jordan, I love that that split infinitive. =D

    Great post, Betsy.