Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Ugly Truth About Writing: Clarity

Ugly truths are everywhere, even in writing. This may be the first of a series.

Writing is first and foremost communication between humans. To my knowledge, we haven't found another species yet that communicates through the written word. I don't think even Coco the gorilla can read. I may be wrong about that.

If you pause to consider, any attempt to transfer thoughts from one being to another is somewhat amazing. How is it possible that the structures in my head could ever mirror the structures in yours? Forget about telepathy. I mean simple concepts like "I'm hungry" or "that's red." Think of a poem or a song that means something to you. How was that writer able to string together a line of words that not only conveyed thoughts but meaning and emotion? Truly amazing.

The ugly truth is clarity falls on the shoulders of the writer. If you are not clear - in your goal, your words and your structure - your reader will never share your thoughts. You the writer will not be physically present in the room when your reader is puzzling over what you're trying to say. You will not have the chance to explain yourself if you miss it the first time. If you are not focused from the outset, your reader will be as confused as you are.

If you're a high school student writing a term paper you may not care whether your reader is confused. If you're a lawmaker in Washington, you're hoping to confuse people. If you're anyone else, writing anything else, clarity is vital.

This is why a critique/support group is a valuable tool. Having another human read your writing and tell you what they learned lets you know if you were clear in your presentation. Not every person will understand you (this is why books come in genres), but you should be able to get your point across to the majority.

This is where you must remind yourself that writing is a skill. Getting defensive is not useful. Improving your written clarity is. I confess I still have some trouble with this, but generally, I'm pretty thick-skinned when it comes to criticism of my writing. If my writing improves as a result, it was worth it, no matter how painful. You must learn to separate your worth as a writer from your written product. Mary DeMuth calls it being thick-skinned and tender-hearted.

Yes, you slaved over those words. Yes, in your mind, you said exactly what you wanted to say. However, if the reader doesn't get it, your writing failed her. You haven't failed. Your skill did. Skill can be improved; in fact, must be improved, or no one will bother to pick up that second piece of writing.

I started this blog last month, but this is not the first time I have written. I have been writing for one reason or another for most of my life. My skill has improved with time and practice. I am not perfect, as I think I have been quick to point out in this forum, but I aim for perfection. I aim for clarity.
When I miss, it's because I don't know what I'm trying to say.

The point: know what you want to say, and use all your writing skill to say it clearly.
Your reader will thank you for it.

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