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YMMV: Edit for Clarity First (Line Editing, Part 1)

☀️ I Can See All Obstacles in my Way...

Bit of housekeeping up at the top here: I have indeed burned through more material than I'd expected in the first quarter of the year, so I'm going to be dropping back to one post every other week for at least a little while. The editorial board apologizes for any inconvenience.

Edit For Clarity First

"Editing" is one of those terms that is used to cover so many bases that it has almost become meaningless. The person who buys stories, the person who helps develop stories, the person who checks spelling and punctuation, the person who checks for continuity, the person who looks at word choice and sentence structure--all of these people have "editor" in their job title. So needs must that we hone in on one, and over the next few posts, I'm going to be looking at my favorite of these: line-editing. Or "wordsmithing," if you like.

Now, most authors find line-editing to be a chore. I love it. I love it so much that I actively do it while I write. And I have a three-part rubric that I always keep in the back of my mind when line-editing--three questions that I want to be able to answer "yes" to, organized by priority. They are:

  1. Is it clear?
  2. Is it economical?
  3. Is it aesthetically pleasing?
And for Part 1 of this set of posts, we are going to dive obsessively down the rabbit-hole of what it means to write "clearly."

So first off: why is clarity important? This should be self-explanatory, but it wouldn't be a Your Mileage May Vary Post if I didn't relate this back to my post on the Attention Budget, so that's what we're gonna do. If your reader has to go back and re-read, it's going to eat away at their attention budget, i.e., their willingness to keep reading. And the more they have to go back and re-read, the faster they will get frustrated with each iteration. It may seem like I'm overstating it, but I swear I'm not. If a reader has to work too hard to finish your story, they just won't do it. Reading is a pastime, not an assignment. So it's in your best interest to keep your reader from having to go back and re-read, and the key to this is making sure that you are clearly conveying the information you are trying to convey in every sentence.

Once more for the kids in the cheap seats: if your reader can't follow the story, nothing else matters. Clarity is paramount.

And I can already hear the objection forming in the back of your throat: "But Kurt, I do write clearly." And I'm sure you think you do, but can you look me in the eye and swear that you write clearly enough? Remember that when you're reading your own writing, you're hearing it in your own voice. No one else has that luxury with regard to your prose because nobody else lives in your head... probably. So you need to be clear enough for people who aren't you. Someone who has never met you needs to be able to read your writing with very minimal effort.

And this goes double if you're writing for an adult audience. I haven't been able to source it, but I swear I heard Neil Gaiman in an interview talk about how you have to make an extra effort to be clear when writing for adult audiences compared to writing for an audience of children. This sounds counterintuitive, but the reasoning is pretty solid. Children will re-read and agonize over every word you put on the page, but adults are distracted and easily bored, so you really have hold their hands through the story.

All of this to say, you can probably be clearer. So what does that mean?

Usually it means "add more words." I say "usually" because I read a lot of work from new writers and new writers have a tendency to under-write. And while there's a lot to be said for brevity, new writers tend to achieve it by omitting bits that they don't feel like explaining rather than cutting fluff. The other sin that new writers tend to commit for the sake of brevity is to try to jam too much into a single sentence or paragraph.

I also know a lot of experienced writers who over-write their first drafts and then need to cut. And I see a lot of new writers who ramble and experienced writers who are very spare--because every writer is different and there's a reason this series is called Your Mileage May Vary. Personally, I find myself inflating by up to 20% in an editing pass, depending on how thoroughly I've pre-written or how married I am to a word count, and it's almost always for the sake of clarity.

But we still haven't gotten into the nuts and bolts, so lets do that. Line-editing exists at a couple of different levels: paragraph-to-paragraph and sentence-to-sentence. These operate somewhat differently, but we're going to look at them individually, even though you're typically doing both at the same time. First, we're going to talk about sentences, and when editing sentences for clarity the guiding mantra is...

Make the sentence be about one thing and one thing only.

Now, if you're like me and have listened to all 53 seasons of Writing Excuses, you might take some umbrage because they harp constantly about how your sentences should be doing more than one thing at a time. This is not me disagreeing with them. So I'm going to draw a distinction between "about" and "doing." Your sentence can be doing a lot of things at once: setting tone, providing exposition, giving insight into the character, etc. But it needs to only be about one thing.

There's an instructive lesson in film, because it also wouldn't be a Your Mileage May Vary post without me comparing writing to filmmaking. The lesson is this: the camera only ever shows you one thing. If there are multiple people in frame, what you're actually seeing is the relationship between those people--that's the one thing that camera is showing you. Consider the iconic shot from The Fellowship of the Ring with the four hobbits hiding under a tree from a Ringwraith.

There are a lot of things in the frame. Four named characters, a horse, and a tree with an elaborate root structure, plus the forest in the background. But the one thing that the camera is showing you is how small the protagonists are compared to the threat that they're facing. Sentences work the same way, but instead of camera framing showing you the relationship between characters, sentence structures show you the relationships between ideas.

Short sentences are impactful. When a sentence leads with a dependent clause, it's demonstrating a causal link between the first part and the second part. Compound sentences that use "and" are joining two ideas, and they put the ideas on roughly equal footing. Compound sentences that use "but" or "yet" do the same thing, but they're emphasizing the contrast between the ideas. Asides can either use parentheses (which are explanatory) or--if they want to show how one idea interrupts another--they can use em-dashes. Sentences joined by semicolons are explicitly comparative; they draw a lot of attention to the similarities and the contrasts.

You get the idea. In all of the above examples, the sentence is only about one thing even though it is doing multiple things: explaining the idea as well as demonstrating it. I'm going to go a bit more into the mechanics of this--and how it goes wrong--in the next post on word economy, so put a pin in that.

Now we pivot to paragraphs. Functionally, the paragraph is the basic unit of narrative. A paragraph represents one beat in a passage of text. (More on why "passages" is important in just a sec.) When you're looking at your paragraphs, what you should be most concerned with is the flow of information through the story. Does the reader know what they need to know when they need to know it? Does that information work for the story rather than against it? There's a big difference between being guided through a narrative and just having a list of facts and events thrown at you willy-nilly. And to do this effectively, you need to have a solid understanding of how paragraphs function.

A paragraph is effectively a transition from one thought to another. Here's an example that I put together for a line-editing demonstration that sums it up meta-textually:

"The first sentence of a paragraph is an idea. It represents the central premise of the paragraph. Further sentences elaborate on it. They add variation and texture. They poke and prod the idea, examining it to uncover something else. This process changes the idea. By the last sentence, the idea has become something else that is pointing the reader towards the next paragraph."

Note that there's a lot of emphasis placed on the beginning and the end. The interior of a paragraph is all just connective tissue. None of it is essential (although all of it ought to at least be useful). You could drop everything but the first and last sentences of a well-written paragraph and still understand what it's trying to get across. This is because the first and last sentence of a paragraph are anchor points. People remember beginnings and endings, but middles get a little squishy. So when you're looking at your paragraph, make sure the important parts aren't getting buried in the middle where they'll be forgotten.

The other key thing about paragraphs is how you transition out of them. "Have transitions between paragraphs" is one of those things that my elementary school teachers drilled into me, but they never actually explained how to do it. Turns out it's pretty simple.

Whenever you have a new idea, put a paragraph break right before it.

This is actually very natural when you're writing longer stretches of narrative. Because it turns out, as I alluded to earlier, we don't think in paragraphs; we think in passages, that is, longer stretches of text or narrative. We just organize it into paragraphs because it make things easier to navigate visually. And most writers have an intuitive understanding that you start the paragraph where your next idea is most fully realized. It's not always perfect--I frequently find myself taking the last sentence of a paragraph and moving it to the beginning of the next--but it makes intuitive sense.

Incidentally, the fact that we tend to think in passages rather than paragraphs is why not all paragraphs need to have clean transitions between them. When you get to the end of a passage, your last sentence is a conclusion, not a transition. The following paragraph becomes a pivot rather than a continuation. It should still flow contextually, but it should also be obvious to the reader that we've ended the current thought and progressed to another. If you want an example of this kind of pivoting in action, just search this page for "Now we pivot to paragraphs."

This idea of pivoting between passages gets really interesting when you're doing character interactions because you're switching contexts every time the focus moves from one character to another. In these kinds of scenes, you generally want an individual paragraph to be focused on the actions (including dialog--because dialog is a type of action) of one character at a time. So when the focus shifts from one character to another, you have to pivot from one context to the other. It's almost-but-not-really like you're interleaving two distinct passages into a single narrative.

The biggest threat to clarity here is not giving enough breathing room between those context switches. Something I see from new writers is a character interaction that's just constant back-and-forth (usually in the form of expository dialog) with no rhythm or flow to it. It's effectively a list of facts and events. And it's very easy to get lost in it because it's moving pretty quickly while not holding your attention very well. Now, some quick back-and-forth dialog can be fun and give that part of the scene a ratatat feeling. But you also want to have longer paragraphs mixed in as well, moments to slow down and linger on something and simulate a pause in the conversation. This also gives your reader a respite from the context switching. It's important to have those slow moments, and that means putting in character business, introspection, and what-not.

Because at the end of the day, just like I said up above, when you're editing for clarity, the answer is usually "use more words."

Phew. That was a lot. You can see why "line-editing" is going to be a trilogy.

Next time, we'll look at what it means to edit for economy...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.