One of the biggest mistakes a rookie writer can make—and does make, very often—is failing to focus on clarity. Clarity is not a particularly exciting attribute, which is maybe why it doesn’t get written about often. Writers like to focus on other things—stylistic choices, character and setting, dialogue, plot structure, etc. All of these things are important, and worthy of lots of attention…
…but the most important quality of good writing, by far, is clarity.
Clarity is essential. If a reader at any time stops understanding what’s happening, who’s who, who is speaking, who is doing what, is unclear about where the action is occurring, or who or what the characters are talking about… well, you’ve got a clarity problem. And chances are the reader is going to give up. It won’t be a hard decision to close the book and turn on the TV.
Most of the time, a lack of clarity is unintentional. But a lot of writers make the mistake of being ambiguous on purpose. They think that withholding key details will intrigue the reader and keep them guessing. For example, they won’t reveal the name of the main character, or where the action is taking place. Though common, this is almost always a bad idea. It will frustrate more than titillate. It’s false mystery, mystery that has nothing to do with the characters or the story; it has to do with the writer trying to manufacture suspense out of nothing.
When I work with editing clients, I often use the phrase “grounding.” At the beginning of a book, chapter, or scene, it’s important to ground the reader as soon as possible. Don’t play coy. Tell the reader who’s involved in the scene, where they are, what’s happening, and when it’s happening. Then let the story itself provide the suspense. If the story is good, you won’t need to work too hard to manufacture suspense.
Simplicity and forthrightness go a long way when you’re just getting started. Writers need to learn to get out of the way. Sure, as a writer gets more seasoned, he or she can start playing around with narrative tricks and stunt moves. The more you understand the rules, the more you can bend them to your advantage. But rookie writers don’t yet know all these subtle and unspoken rules, so increasing the difficulty level is a recipe for disaster.
I’ve made all of these mistakes myself, and appropriately got swatted down for it. I wrote the whole first chapter of a book without revealing the name of my main character—more than one character, actually. There was no good reason for it; it was a stylistic choice. It backfired. All it did was annoy my readers. It prevented them from getting invested in the otherwise interesting story I was trying to tell. Once I rewrote it, adding names, nobody had any complaints. The story was able to speak for itself.
A great story is a great story. If you tell it clearly and confidently, without all those fancy writing frills and gimmicks, the story can take center stage.
If you’ve made these mistakes, don’t sweat it. Just resolve to do better in the future. After all, the only way to become a great writer is to start off as a bad one. It’s an unavoidable part of the lengthy process of mastering one’s craft.
And besides, there’s no pressure to get it right the first time. That’s what editors are for.
How well have you mastered clarity? Request a sample edit and quote from one of our editors to help you find out.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.