How Clear Is Clear Enough?

20151007 blot 2The English language is a mother lode for punsters. So many words and phrases have multiple meanings. Viewed from a different angle, an innocuous phrase becomes hilarious. I love puns.

The very same quality makes English rich with possibilities for ambiguity and confusion. Here’s an example from the scene I took to my writers’ group last night. Shannon and Jackie are doing some sightseeing. Shannon is driving.

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed out Jackie’s window.”

One group member stalled on “pointed out.” After a moment she understood what I meant, but, she pointed out, “point out” can mean “call attention to” as well as “point to something outside.” (See what I mean?)

At this point, I have a choice: leave it as is or reword it. On one hand, this is not a gaffe that will provoke the reader to gales of laughter. On the other, this is not a sentence that I want anyone to stumble over. Most important, it’s easy to fix. This morning, while reviewing the feedback from my writers’ group, I made a little change:

“As they drove by the old Keith farm on Middle Road, Shannon pointed a forefinger toward Jackie’s window.”

Part of an editor’s job is to misread everything that can be misread. The writer thinks something is perfectly clear; the editor says, “I’m not sure what you mean here.” This is one reason that writers sometimes think editors are a pain in the butt. (Being both writer and editor, I often think I’m a pain in the butt, so don’t feel bad.)

This is also why it’s an excellent idea to have others read your work before you send it out into the world: peers or colleagues, a writers’ group, maybe even a professional editor. At the very least, let it sit for a week or two or three, then read it as if you’ve never read it before. Be warned, though: This takes practice, and it’s never as reliable as having others read it.

Often a reader’s “Huh?” will prompt a rewording that works better than the original. Sometimes you’ll decide to stick with the original, perhaps because it’ll be readily understood by your target audience(s), or perhaps because all the fixes you come up with make it worse. It’s the writer’s call, but writers are usually better off for having some idea of how our writing is coming across to readers.

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7 thoughts on “How Clear Is Clear Enough?

  1. I have been saved SO many times by having a first reader or editor ask, “Huh?” And there was the time that I had a science fiction story, where people get a virus that keeps them from gaining weight. Oh, naive soul that I am, I decided to name the people who can’t keep enough weight on “boners”. Had I not run that through my writing group, it would have indeed been a howler! I renamed the people and the story (Counting Calories) was published in an SF anthology. But, whew!

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  2. Personally, I detest puns 99% of the time. Mostly they’re just tired cliches which at best take up writing space, and at worst confuse readers.

    I think concreteness in language is much more important to strive for, even though it means trading off some brevity to nail down the descriptions. As long as you drop that concrete in the right place of course, and not say, in the middle of your character’s climactic knife fight scene.

    I suppose finding a balance between the two is what makes a practiced prose writer stand out over an amateur. I’d bet as an editor you can spot the difference by the end of someone’s first page, maybe even first paragraph.

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    • An editors’ e-list I’m on sometimes gives in to “pun wars.” Some of the puns are predictable, but most of them are a hoot — about what you’d expect when people who work with words all day give in to the urge to play.

      Finding the balance is key, and it’s why rules and guidelines can only take a writer or editor so far. And it’s true about recognizing the really good stuff by the end of a paragraph or two (for stories) or a page or two (for books). Once upon a time, when I heard slush-pile readers say that, I thought they were being terribly close-minded and unjust. Then I edited three anthologies of original f/sf. I read nearly a thousand stories and bought forty-five. Within a very few paragraphs, I knew which ones were definitely not going to make the cut — probably three quarters of the total. Usually the writing was competent enough, but there was a paint-by-numbers feel to it.

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      • That’s what I hear from most of the writing lectures I’ve listened to. They offer tools but tell you to ignore them if you don’t find them useful, and to just find what works for you.

        It wouldn’t surprise me that 9/10 submitted stories are rejected before the end of the first page. I heard the analogy of reading a first page being like listening to someone sit down and play the piano. Anyone can tell how skilled they are instantly. And an editor with experience can do it without breaking stride.

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        • That’s a good analogy. And if you’re a teacher or coach, you might keep listening, in order to figure out how the pianist (or writer) could improve, but if you’re auditioning pianists for a performance or editing an anthology, you’re under no such obligation — and the bar is set pretty damn high. If an editor rejects your story but makes some specific comments on how to improve it or what to watch out for, it probably means s/he thinks you’re worth the effort. 🙂

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