Thanks to MSWord and similar programmes, most of us can now avoid
embarassing embarrassing spelling mistakes. Word will even address many grammar errors, baffling though its suggestions might be (“Consider revising”?! How is that advice?). Unfortunately, Gentle Reader, what these programmes have failed to remedy is the issue of clarity in writing – or, to be precise, non-clarity.
A sentence is the basic tool of the writer, and it needs to pack a powerful punch. It benefits from simple constructions, direct language, and powerful imagery. Sounds straight-forward enough, doesn’t it?
AND YET... we writers are constantly coming up with convoluted phrasing, flowery words, and confusing descriptions. We prefer to use twelve words when three will do. In fact, if at all possible, we prefer to use twelve words and four adjectives and three adverbs, where three words will do. We end up with sentences like:
With an irritated toss of her sun-kissed hair, the sultry blonde sank her pearly white teeth into the shiny skin of the Granny Smith.
...when we could have written: The blonde bit moodily into her apple.
This kind of “purple prose” is a sure way to turn off your reader, be she your beta reader, a potential agent, or a kindly friend who’s offered to edit your work.
So, which are the most heinous clarity-killers? I’ve compiled a list of those which are, in my opinion, the Top Five. These are based on my experience of my own writing, errors I have seen in my writers’ groups. Feel free to comment below, if you think there are important ones I’ve missed.
1. Too Many Ideas in the same sentence
I gave this the top spot because it is the clarity-killer I see most often.
In this example, the protagonists (Chase and Emily) know they are different from the other residents of their home town (Sebastopol), and are determined to find out why.
Together, Chase and Emily dive deep into the shadows in search of who or what they could possibly be while avoiding the additional problems caused by actually being different in the city of Sebastopol, where the teens do anything to stand above a world run by power, wealth, and Emily’s insane Uncle Vladimir.
Whoa. Even ignoring the other issues in this sentence (and they are legion), a quick tally gives me SEVEN ideas jammed into that sentence, some more complex than others:
- Chase and Emily are together.
- Chase and Emily dive deep into the shadows.
- They search for who, or what, they could possibly be.
- They are also avoiding the “additional problems” caused by being different in the city of Sebastopol.
- In Sebastopol, the teens do anything to stand above their world.
- Their world is run by power, wealth and Emily’s Uncle.
- Emily’s Uncle is insane.
A reader who is encountering your story for the first time will find this barrage of information difficult to digest. And – perhaps worse – because so many ideas are jostling for sentence space, most of them are under-explained, making the entire sentence even more baffling.
When Revising: Ask yourself, how many ideas do I have in this sentence? Are some of the ideas under-explained or confusing? Can I break the sentence into shorter sentences? If I do, does it read more easily/make more sense?
If in doubt: Ask a friend to read the sentence aloud. If they burst a blood vessel or stop to have an asthma attack, consider revising.
2. The dangling participle, or, I Don’t Know What My “Subject” Is
This sends a chill up my spine every time I read it. It’s common because it’s an easy mistake to make during the first draft, and easy to miss in revisions.
“What on earth is a dangling participle?” I hear you ask.
Every sentence has a subject. In the sentence, “The dog ate my homework”, the dog is the subject. You’ll know what the subject is because it’s a noun/naming word, and it is usually the thing doing something, for example, eating homework. **passive sentences work differently from this, but I won’t be discussing those today.
Now, the rule is this: No matter how complicated your sentence, you must always stick with your sentence subject.
So: Sitting on my desk, surrounded by ruined felt-tip pens and slobbered-on exercise books, sat my dog, chewing noisily on my homework assignment.
Note that every part of the sentence above applies to the dog. Dear old Fido was sitting on the desk; he was surrounded by ruined felt-tip pens; he was chewing the assignment; and so on.
And here, Gentle Reader, is how to break the rule: Walking through the park, smelling the sweet daffodils, the dappled sun shone on Elaine’s bare arms.
What??? The sun is walking through the park? The sun is smelling the sweet daffodils? Sounds like a horrendous case of global warming.
Naturally the writer didn’t mean that the sun did all these things, but by placing the sun as the subject of the sentence, we’re left with no other choice but to imagine a badly charred meadow and third-degree burns all round.
So how can you fix the dangling participle above? Try this: Walking through the park, smelling the sweet daffodils, Elaine could feel the dappled sun shine on her bare arms. (This sentence works because the subject, Elaine, is doing everything in the sentences: walking, smelling, feeling. The sun is no longer the subject, unlike in the sentence above.)
Or: As Elaine walked through the park and smelled the sweet daffodils, the dappled sun shone on her bare arms. (This one works because it takes two complete sentences [Elaine walked through the park and smelled the sweet daffodils] [The sun shone on Elaine’s bare arms] and links them with the connector “as”.)
Another example of the dangling participle error, from Merriam Webster dictionary:
Turning the corner, a handsome school building appeared.
Easy fix: As we turned the corner, a handsome school building appeared (two sentences with two distinct subjects, joined by the connector “as”). Or As we turned the corner, we saw a handsome school building (“we” is now the subject of both parts of the sentence; the school building is no longer the subject of any part).
When Revising: Make sure each sentence has a clear subject. Ensure each sentence has only one subject. The exception to this, as shown above, is when the sentence is really two complete sentences that are joined by a conjunction.
If in doubt: Ask yourself who is doing the action in the sentence (who is the subject). If you can come up with more than one possibility, revise.
3. The Endangered “That”
Ah, the much-maligned that. Some people will tell you a single that is a that too many. Don’t believe them. That is a perfectly useful word, which can help your reader immeasurably in the pursuit of sense. This is because sentences are broken into ideas, and it is not always easy to see when a new idea “block” begins.
Example: Dan told Ellen that he was blind.
Two idea “blocks” here: 1. Dan told Ellen. 2. He was blind. “That” has been used to indicate the beginning of idea “block” (2). If we remove that, we get:
Dan told Ellen he was blind. That makes sense; in a simple sentence like this, the loss of that is not confusing at all.
But not all sentences are so straight-forward: Dan told Ellen that three things had helped him to learn Braille.
Three idea “blocks” here: 1. Dan told Ellen 2. Three things 3. Helped him to learn Braille. “That has been used to indicate the beginning of block (2). If we remove that, we get:
Dan told Ellen three things had helped him to learn Braille. Slightly confusing, because reading in a linear fashion – as readers do – gives the initial impression that Dan had told Ellen three things. Actually, Dan had told Ellen ONE thing; he’d said, “three things helped me to learn Braille”.
Here is a slightly more complex sentence, and I have already omitted the that: If the board member moved the council car should be sold and has the figures to back it up, I concur.
There are six idea “blocks” here: 1. If the board member 2. Moved 3. The council car 4. Should be sold 5. Has the figures (to back it up) 6. I concur.
The problem is in the ambiguity of the statement without that. As it reads now, until you get to the word sold, this sentence sounds very much like: that board member may be sold; you know the one, he moved the council car. A harsh penalty for parking in the wrong place!
In fact, we want to say that the board member put forward a motion that the car ought to be sold. The speaker says s/he will support this, if the board member has sound economic reasoning. So here is the sentence, with the word that: If the board member moved that the council car should be sold and has the figures to back it up, I concur. Much clearer now, isn’t it?
Of course, you might think that these sentences are good enough; that the reader, once he has gotten to the end of the sentence, will understand it after a moment’s pause. But here’s the catch: readers don’t like to do that. Having to stop, frown and consider will pull your reader completely out of the story you’ve worked so hard to create. Agents and editors know this.
When Revising: Don’t perform a blind “Find, delete” on the word that. Consider each sentence on its merits – the word that may be an important aid to understanding.
If in doubt: Ask yourself, can the sentence be construed in more than one way if I remove the word that? If so, leave the word that in the sentence.
4. Comma Use
Like the word that, the humble comma has been vilified in modern language. Gentle Reader: The Comma Is Not Your Enemy. It is a vital tool for reader understanding. Unfortunately, many of us use commas carelessly. Here are the three most common examples:
Mistake #1. Not using commas to separate a sub-clause.
The apple which was poisoned was Snow White’s undoing.
“Which was poisoned” is a sub clause (we know it is, because we can take it out and still have a complete sentence: The apple was Snow White’s undoing). Therefore, we need to use commas around the “which was poisoned” sub-clause.
The apple, which was poisoned, was Snow White’s undoing.
The sentence above is, admittedly, simple. In cases of extremely complex sentences, your reader will thank you for correct comma usage:
Verity who was my mother’s sister and most beloved child of my grandfather a curmudgeonly old man whose heart was blacker than his well-polished boots could never recover from the loss of her husband even three years later setting a place for him at the dinner table.
Verity, who was my mother’s sister and most beloved child of my grandfather, a curmudgeonly old man whose heart was blacker than his well-polished boots, could never recover from the loss of her husband, even, three years later, setting a place for him at the dinner table.
Mistake #2: commas + however – a tricky combination
There are two ways of using the word however: with a comma and without.
If your however is synonymous with “despite this/nevertheless/even so”, it is an adverb and you will use it with a comma, either at the beginning of your sentence:
However, it was not to be.
...or after the subject of the sentence:
My husband, however, had other plans.
Note that both instances were surrounded by commas.
If your however is a conjunction, it will look like this:
However much we tried, we could not convince him.
However bad your cold, you must still complete your homework.
Note that you do not use commas after this kind of however.
When Revising: Decide whether your however is an adverb (the first one described) or a conjunction (the second one described). Adverb howevers require commas.
If in doubt: An easy rule of thumb to tell apart the two kinds of however - ask yourself, can I take the however out of the sentence and it still makes sense and is a complete sentence? If the answer is yes, then you have the adverb version (the first version), and it needs a comma(s).
Mistake #3: joining two complete sentences with a comma.
Commas can do a number of things, such as join subclauses to a sentence (we stared at the dog, which had appeared so calm the moment before), or break up a list (his pockets contained little more than a comb, three pennies, a battered matchbox and a bus ticket).
But they cannot join two complete sentences. This, for example, is a mistake: Romeo loved Juliet, he’d known her for just fifteen minutes.
Instead, use a semicolon: Romeo loved Juliet; he’d known her for just fifteen minutes.
Or a conjunction word: Romeo loved Juliet, although he’d known her for just fifteen minutes.
Or a good old fashioned period/full stop: Romeo loved Juliet. He’d known her for fifteen minutes.
5. Whose Line is it Anyway?
There is nothing more irritating than getting lost in dialogue, and then realising that you have no idea who’s supposed to be talking. This can happen from a staccato exchange of dialogue, where each line is snappy enough that it doesn’t give any information about the speaker.
“How are you today?”“So-so.”“Just so-so? But it’s a beautiful day.”“Yeah, it is a beautiful day. How’s your wife?”“My wife’s glum – I bought her an ironing board for her birthday. How’s yours?”“She’s great – I bought her a new Kindle for her birthday.”“Nice work!”“So why so gloomy then?”“Who’s gloomy?”“Didn’t you say you were just so-so?”“Hang on, I thought you said you were so-so...”
How is this fixed? Here are some ideas: Add in a few well-placed dialogue tags (he said, Dave replied, she whispered). Break up the dialogue with some action; it’s easy to remember who’s who is one of the men is in the middle of tying a tie. Or make the speech of each character markedly different, so – for example - one is using slang and the other using perfect diction.
Here I’ve used all these:
“How are you today?” Barry called over his shoulder, as he wrestled with the tie around his neck.Tim shrugged. “So-so.”“Just so-so? But it’s a beautiful day.”“Yeah, it’s a beautiful day. How’s your old lady?”Bob made an exaggerated grimace. “My wife’s glum – I bought her an ironing board for her birthday.” If I’d gotten her a diamond ring, I wouldn’t be tying this half-Windsor myself. “How’s yours?”“She’s sweet – I bought her a new Kindle for her birthday.”“Nice work!” Whatever a “Kindle” is... Bob held up the ends of his tie and gave them a hard look.Etc.
Phew. If you’ve made it this far down the page, Gentle Reader, you deserve a pat on the back! Next Monday I’ll be back with more tips on novel-writing, plus a super exciting special announcement.
Ink stains and all,