Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Muddy Waters

Clear as mud. Don’t muddy the waters. Still waters run deep. The number of expressions fretting about clarity suggests deep concern, if not absolute obsession. How clear is clear enough? That’s not just a general issue; it’s a major writing one. How much “mud” will readers tolerate? How clear is so obvious that all the fun’s gone? Without polling everyone, how could you possibly decide? Here’s a little bleach for that cloudy water.

~ Audience.

Identify whom you’re writing for. One gal’s transparency is another gal’s sun-in-your-eyes. One guy’s drone statistics is another guy’s droning on and on. The more precisely you can pinpoint the kind of people you hope will read your novel, then the more precisely you can pinpoint what will please them. Do they like an absolutely firm foundation—with everything laid out? Or would they enjoy a little ambiguity? At what point does mysterious become confusing—and thus boring.

Assess clarity in fiction that resembles yours. What do they leave out? What do they spell out? Do this repeatedly, and you’ve begun charting a course.

~ Context.

We play guessing games because guessing’s fun. It’s not fun, though, if readers must guess how these sentences connect, how we got from there to here, where the characters live, how old they are, and what could possibly motivate them to behave this way. Think journalism: “why” must follow “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when.” Nor do you get to ignore those essentials. Just don’t bury the good parts beneath logistics.

No one likes being lost. Readers struggling with context can’t infer concept.

~ Concept.

Many readers enjoy inferring ideas, emotions, and themes. These readers want enough well-placed clues—and then? The freedom to reach their own conclusions. Taste exerts enormous power here. You’ll find readers at both extremes: those who don’t mind a bit of “telling” for clarity and those who mind even a nip of “telling”—no matter how much it clarifies.

Differentiate the details readers can’t possibly infer from those that certain readers want to discover for themselves. If you still can’t decide, aim for a point midway between obscure and belabored.

Use the fiction you read and feedback from those who critique your work to develop an ear for when to be clear, when to be slightly cryptic.

Tip: The writer should help the reader focus—and the right amount of clarity accomplishes just that.

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