What Gives Your Writing The Edge?

What do you think is the most important quality of any piece of writing – whether it’s a novel, a short story, an essay, a newspaper column, a magazine article or a blog post?

We could probably come up with a long list here, including things like “compelling”, “creative”, “original”, “thought-provoking”, “inspiring”, “entertaining”…… I wonder which other virtues you’d want to add?

Well, I’d second all of those, but here’s one that’s so important I feel it warrants a whole blog post of its own. It sits right at the top of my list of priorities – and, without it, many of the other qualities your writing aspires to will go down the pan.

And the winner is……..CLARITY!

If your writing isn’t crystal clear, it might be creative and original, but it’s unlikely to be thought-provoking, inspiring or compelling – because lack of clarity is a huge turn-off.

I gave up on a blog post just the other day because I lost patience with the writer, who left me floundering in a swamp of self-absorbed ramblings. The blogger concerned clearly thought he was being very challenging and creative, but half-way down the page I realised I hadn’t the first clue what he was waffling on about and decided life was too short – so off I clicked.

Are your readers swimming in clear waters, or do you make them wade through sludge to get to the point?

Make your writing crystal CLEAR

Crystal Clear Water—mynameisharsha (Flickr.com)

Here are some simple tips to help you keep the waters clear:

10 Ways To Give Your Writing Greater Clarity

  • USE WORDS YOUR READERS WILL UNDERSTAND

I’ve recently written a post about how to improve your vocabulary and it’s obviously important for writers to build up a good stock of words – they’re the tools of your trade. 

BUT – just because you’ve swallowed a dictionary and discovered some fascinating new words, for goodness’ sake, don’t feel you’ve got to inflict them all on your unsuspecting readers. Unless you’re writing for an expert audience with specialist knowledge, keep your vocabulary simple.

And that goes for acronyms, too – one of my pet peeves. There’s nothing more annoying than content littered with strange abbreviations, like alphabet soup. If you must use acronyms, unless you’re certain all your readers will understand them, make sure you provide a translation.

  •  USE WORDS APPROPRIATELY

The English language is full of words with similar sounds and spellings but completely different meanings. “Affect” and “effect”, “complement” and “compliment”, and “practice” and “practise” are classic examples – you can go look them up if you don’t know the difference. 

If you’re not sure what a word means or exactly how to spell it, look it up before you use it – unless you want to confuse and irritate your readers and end up looking like an idiot. And in case you need a dictionary, there’s a whole stack of writing reference tools for you here. 

  • USE GOOD BASIC GRAMMAR

I’m not a fully paid up member of the grammar police and don’t intend to give you a big lecture on this subject – I know the very word strikes fear into many hearts, and I’ll admit I hated grammar lessons at school. I’ll also confess I think some grammar rules are fair game – like the strict instruction to avoid the “split infinitive”. Captain James T. Kirk would never have been able “to boldly go” if the writers of Star Trek hadn’t ignored that one. “To go boldly” or “boldly to go”, the grammatically correct alternatives, don’t have quite the same ring to them, do they? 

But, split infinitives apart, the whole point of grammar is simply to make sure people understand what you mean – it’s there to make your writing clear. Commas, apostrophes and other forms of punctuation aren’t just window-dressing – they’re there for a reason – and if you put them in the wrong place, your writing might not make sense.

Apostrophes are one of the most common sources of confusion – if you’re not sure how to use them, check out my earlier post explaining where those pesky apostrophes go. There’s also tons of great advice about grammar online – including Mignon Fogarty’s wonderful quick and dirty tips on her Grammar Girl website.

  • AVOID LONG, COMPLICATED SENTENCES

Try to keep your sentences short and sweet. It’s usually best to let each sentence convey a single thought. Sentences with lots of sub-clauses are apt to confuse. If you find yourself writing a lengthy, convoluted sentence, have a think about splitting it up – it might make it clearer and easier for your readers to understand. 

  • AVOID LENGTHY PARAGRAPHS

Readers find long, unbroken paragraphs intimidating. They’re a major turn-off and this is one problem that’s easily solved – just split them up and keep them short. 

  • AVOID USING THE PASSIVE VOICE

For those who don’t know what it is, the best way to explain the passive voice is to give you an example.

“I was taught almost all I know about blogging by Adrienne Smith“.

This is absolutely true, and grammatically correct, but the sentence is written in the passive voice, and there’s a much better way of putting it. The verb in this sentence is “taught”, while Adrienne Smith is the subject – the person doing the teaching. It makes it much clearer if I turn it into the “active” voice by putting the subject before the verb, like this:

 “Adrienne Smith taught me almost all I know about blogging.” 

Here’s another very simple example, in case you’re still confused:

“I was bitten by the dog” (passive voice)

“The dog bit me” (active voice).

The active voice is shorter and clearer – and usually has far more impact.

  • MAKE SURE YOUR NARRATIVE MAKES SENSE

Be sure whatever you write flows logically and makes good sense. Whoever’s reading it should be able to follow the narrative thread from beginning to end, without getting lost and confused. So don’t go flying off at tangents, without due consideration for the overall sense and meaning of your article.

Remember: if you lose the plot, what hope for your readers?

  • PUT RELATED WORDS AND IDEAS CLOSE TOGETHER

If you don’t put related words close together, it’s easy to confuse your readers. Here’s an example of a sentence where related words have got separated, with slightly comic effect:

“You can phone Nancy to invite her for dinner, first thing in the morning.”

This makes it sound as if you’re going to invite Nancy for a very early dinner date! The sentence would be clearer like this:

“First thing in the morning you can phone Nancy to invite her for dinner”.

It’s the phoning that’s going to happen first thing in the morning – so you need to keep those bits of the sentence together.

  • ALWAYS EDIT AND PROOFREAD BEFORE YOU PUBLISH

Never, never, never publish something without editing and proofreading it thoroughly. Those creative outpourings that flow from your keyboard or pen, like unpasteurised milk, may not be fit for human consumption in their raw state.

I’m sure you’ll have come across the oft-quoted advice to “write as you speak”. This is something I often recommend, but it does not mean you should publish your unedited ramblings. Spontaneous speech is rarely clear and often full of repetition and waffle. It’s fine to write in a conversational style – but this doesn’t obviate the need to edit and proofread your stuff.

Here are links to some posts with tips on how to edit and proofread your content, in case you don’t know where to start.

  • GIVE YOUR READER A HELPING HAND

If there’s a risk your readers might find some of your content a bit challenging, how about giving them some help? I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s wonderful historical novels, which all have huge casts of characters. Realising it would be a bit daunting for readers keep track of them all, Mantel has gone to the trouble of providing a list of all the main characters at the front of each book, so you can look them up if you forget who’s who.

A blog post’s never going to present that kind of challenge, but there might be occasions when you need to give your readers some extra help to make sure they can understand and follow your content. For example, you could use bullet points, sub-headings, practical examples or images to clarify certain points, or provide links to other articles with more detailed explanations of complex issues.

Over to you…..

Do you agree that clarity is a crucial aspect of your writing? Or do you think other qualities are more important? And are there any additional steps we can take to make our content more understandable and user-friendly?

As ever, I’d love to hear from you. If you have anything you’d like to add, please leave a comment below. And don’t forget to share this post, if you think your friends and followers would enjoy it :)

Happy writing!

Sue Neal

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Filed under: Writing Tips

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