Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
When you’re standing in front of someone, bouncing verbally up and down about something, it’s forgivable. Soon you will calm down and get some focus. But when you’re writing about something and you want to inject a little enthusiasm, you can’t waste your readers’ time with all that bouncing.
In the opposite direction, legal documents, with their dire ramifications, are often hard to understand. If someone said, “you write with all the clarity of a barrister,” you probably wouldn’t be flattered.
You don’t want your documents struggled through—you want readers to look eagerly for other work by you. The solution is simple: for happy readers, find the most direct path to a conclusion and use audience-appropriate language.
I recommend outlining for finding the straightest path. If you’ve started by creating an outline before you wrote, you’re fast on the way to clarity because you’ve broken the subject down into its smallest elements. In an outline, you don’t write sentences, complex or otherwise; you just put down the essence of the subject at hand. You can see at a glance whether you’ve digressed, and you can determine just how much bounce is appropriate to your audience without dealing with the complexity of actual sentences.
Or you might try writing the part you know best first, or the conclusion, to help you focus on the essence of the topic. Then, to analyze your work when you’re finished writing the piece, strip each paragraph and sentence to its most basic components. As an editor, when I find a client’s words a little mystifying, I pull an outline from their work. Then I can help reorganize, if necessary, or suggest cuts, without an emotional attachment to the words.
Keep your outline or essence in mind to focus your whole subject, and you might also keep it in mind when you’re creating sentences. There is nothing wrong with a simple sentence. In fact, a simple sentence may be the best sentence. Remember that legalese: it is specifically designed to confuse the reader and encourage dependency on professional help from an attorney. You probably don’t want your readers to need a paid interpreter. (If you do want them to, please recommend my services.)
Write deliberately. Do you need to describe the degree to which something works, or do you just want to? Is something very especially extra nice, or is it just nice? Does piling on adjectives and adverbs make your point more clear, or does it just beef up the word count?
Consider prepositions (directional words), adjectives (descriptive words), and adverbs (manneristic words) carefully. These words are often optional, and may obscure your meaning rather than focusing on it.
When you’re reading your own work, try to place the emphasis in various places within each sentence. Look for places with too much, inappropriate, or not enough punctuation; punctuation is specially designed to focus the reader’s attention.
Be sure you’ve written the sentence as you mean it to be read. Each time you read through your work, try to tighten each section, each paragraph, each sentence, and each phrase to the least number of words.
It’s easy to be clear in your writing.
That sentence started out as “It’s easier to be simple than it is to be complex in the written word.” That’s pretty awful, eh? First, I pulled out “to be complex” and changed “easier” to “easy.” Then “the written word” didn’t fit, so I lopped it off. “It’s easy to be clear” was a little vague, so I put the subject back in.