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Writing with absolute clarity

One of the first things an editor or publisher will be looking for in your submission is clarity of writing style.

Conversely ... one of the first things that'll win you a rejection slip is ambiguity!

If your readers have no idea what the heck you mean in a certain passage, you're being ambiguous. When you're editing for yourself, correcting these passages is the toughest of copy editing jobs, because it stands to reason that you always know what you mean. This is where friends and beta readers are indispensable. Ask them to tell you when they just, plain lost the thread of what you were saying. Change the wording so they do understand.

If you're using the right words; and if you've got a lasso on the "killer pronouns" (covered in the basic grammar series of post); and if your sentences are not long and rambling, and hard to follow (covered in the same post-series), you should be pretty darned readable.

It can be difficult to figure out why someone just can't understand what you meant. Have them tell you what they think you meant, and work backwards from there. Copy editing, in this instance, is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. You become a detective, tracking down the reason something makes no sense.

For instance, you might have used a word the reader doesn't understand. You can look upon them contemptuously for not having a good vocabulary ... but this was a potential customer. If your friend or relative who's beta reading for you doesn't known what dystopian and existential and punctilious mean, it's a safe bet that a significant percentage of the readers in the bookshop don't know, either. The trick is to write with flair and style -- not strangling your style or suffocating your formidable vocabulary -- but at the same time remembering that if you hope to earn royalties, readers have to 1) buy the book, 2) understand and enjoy it, and 3) be eager to buy your next book.

If you're not writing for readers, go ahead and be as clever as you like. If you're writing for academia, you can safely assume they know what you're talking about! Of you're writing for the general marketplace, remember that the average reader of the English language is only reading at something like a Grade 8 or 9 level:

    Literacy in America
    On average, Americans have about 12.5 years of education. However, people read several grades lower than their highest educational achievement, so the average reading level for adult Americans is actually somewhere around eighth or ninth grade. Literacy skills vary widely, so you cannot assume that materials that work in one place or situation will be acceptable in another. They also vary by age and socioeconomic status: people in Medicaid programs tend to read at the fifth grade level or lower and literacy skills for those 65 and older are substantially lower than those for the population as a whole.

    In the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), which reports functional literacy in five levels, nearly half of the adults scored in the lowest two levels of literacy. However, 44 percent of people 65 and older scored in the lowest level, and over two thirds of welfare recipients scored in the lowest two levels. According to researchers, the materials in quality reports typically require literacy skills at Level 5.

    Select for information on the findings of the National Adult Literacy Survey.

If you're hoping to give up the day job and live on your royalties by writing for a niche or genre, it's a good idea to get to know who's reading your work. Also, read your competition! Don't "write down" to the reader, but without a doubt, you must write to be understood. If the reader can't understand you, they'll count the financial investment in your first book as a waste, will dump it at the nearest book-swap, and won't buy your next one.

Another area when you can be difficult to understand is in delicate subject matter, where you're trying to use euphemisms. Too many euphemistic terms, too many poetic, flowery sentences used to get around some sizzling (or gross) scenes, and anyone's writing can jump off the tracks. If the material is so gross, or so sizzling ... does it belong on the page? Credit your readers with imagination, and use the copy editing experience to make the final decisions on what "makes the cut" and what doesn't. Also, bear in mind, no one actually needs to have the physical act of love spelled out in every last detail; we've all known how it goes since about the age of seven! If you're uncomfortable with the material, do what writers used to do in the days before steamy fiction was acceptable. Leave two blank lines and cut to the next scene! Every reader knows exactly what happened during those blank lines, and you can duck the subject neatly, and hence avoid being so foggy and vague, readers were confused. Copy editing is the time to make this artistic decision.

Similarly, you must decide what level of violence you want to include. being realistic is one thing, but violence can go way over the top, and again, you're wading knee-deep in euphemisms. Same story: use your copy editing process to decide what's going to land on the page and what gets cut.

Occasionally, you'll discover (all writers do!) that when you come back to something you wrote six months ago, and read it back, YOU have no idea, none at all, what you meant in a particular passage. It's the strangest feeling, to be reading your own novel and lose the thread. If you were knitting, they would say you had dropped a stitch. Now, you can only look at the material directly before the problem, and directly after, see if you can infer the meaning ... and if you can't, put a line through the paragraph that went wool-gathering. You might need to construct bridging material to close the narrative back up. You can also discover perfect flow, with the woolly paragraph(s) deleted. You're doing the copy editing here ... you're in charge!

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