Loving this long lithub article by Francine Prose about the need to write clearly. There’s nothing like absenting yourself from a manuscript draft for a couple of months to reveal all the unintentionally vague, poorly expressed thoughts. Short stories can turn up murky, but a novel—with its larger number of theme, characters, plot strands, and ultimately, purposes—can be downright impenetrable. And getting the words right, making the text clear, as Prose says, “is harder than it looks.”
In some novels, every word seems exactly right, in exactly the right place, like bells change-ringing. It’s something to strive for. In rereading my own work, I come across sentences that are like an impenetrable hedge around a thought (if there is one). I have to stop myself and ask, “what are you saying here?” If there is some kernel in there, it is so masked by syntax and verbiage that even I, who should know what is intended, can barely find it.
Prose excerpts letters from Chekhov to the young Maxim Gorky in which he suggests (advice frequently resurrected now 120 years later) that Gorky dispense with excessive modifiers. “The brain can’t grasp all of this at once,” Chekhov says, “and the art of fiction ought to be immediately, instantaneously graspable.” Simplification was one key to finding my way out of brambly sentences too. And if a whack through the brush and can’t find the kernel, well, that’s why I have a delete key.
The noted editor Harold Evans provides “ten shortcuts to making yourself clear” in his entertaining and helpful book on “why writing well matters.” His book in its entirety is about giving writers the tools to unravel knotty prose.
Prose advises writers to ask themselves, “Would I say this?” She clarifies that she doesn’t mean they should write exactly the way they would speak (listen to conversations on the train and you’ll see why), but that “they avoid, in their writing, anything they would not say out loud to another human being.” In her brand new book, What to Read and Why, she discusses some of her favorite writers and what makes their work enduring, along with an essay specifically “On Clarity.”
Time and a balky memory give me distance from the words I’ve so carefully and at times inartfully put on paper. Assessing whether a sentence or passage is clear requires reading it as if the writer were a stranger to it, Prose believes. As writers, we’re on a quest. She says, “Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.”
Simplicity is not the only cure for confusion. Prose cites long and grammatically complex sentences of Virginia Woolf’s that, though they require an attentive reader, are nevertheless clear. Inviting and assuring the reader’s attention means making the subject and the characters interesting, providing sufficient motivation for readers to fix their attention on them. A subject for another time!