On Specificity and Clarity in Writing

Hey Folks,

I was going to write a whole post on this topic, but really, that isn’t necessary. It’s a personal pet-peeve kind of thing. And far be it from me to foist my “beliefs” on anyone else.

What pet peeve?

Well, people who write things and then postulate—not even apologetically but more apoplectically and with a wag of the hand—that “The reader will know what I mean.”  Those folks get on my nerves. Deep and hard.

But I have come to understand that such things don’t matter, by and large, to many people, writers and readers alike. Or at least it seems so to me.

For example, despite published writings that are replete with inappropriate instances of absolutes (all, never, always, everyone, nobody, etc.), apparently no writers write like that. Ever.

If you don’t believe me, ask them.

And despite published writings that are chock full of eyes wandering out of heads and doing things on their own (her eyes flew across the room and came to rest on a barrel of metal shavings), again, no writer put those words on a page. Again, ever.

And the same goes for other body parts: “her legs raced along the sidewalk” or “his nose smelled something strange” or “her ears listened closely” or “his finger dialed the telephone” or “his hand crept into his pocket to retrieve his revolver.”

No writers that I’ve been able to find write like that either. Ever.

But based on the hard evidence contained between the covers of some books, some do. Or maybe the publishers are sneaking that stuff in.

Anyway, if you mention those faux pas to the writers, they grin the grin of a thousand braying jackasses, wag that hand in the air as if you and they are old buddies and say something like, “Aah, you know, the readers know I didn’t mean it like that.”

And most often I smile and say something noncommittal, like “Hey, when you’re right, you’re right” or “Ah.”

But the truth lurks in my mind: No, Sparky, they don’t.

Readers read for either or both of two purposes: entertainment and-or information. If you write “never,” they read “never.” They don’t automatically substitute “seldom” or “sometimes” or some other less-inclusive, less blanket-clad word.

If you write that “her legs raced down the road,” the reader sees disembodied legs racing down the road.

If you write that “her eyes came to rest on a barrel of metal shavings,” the reader will wince. Because face it, that had to hurt.

And it isn’t the reader’s fault that they take you at your word(s). It’s your fault.

After all, the reader has no choice but to accept what you put on the page, whether it’s in your novel, in your Essay On Some Topic Of Major Importance or on your Facebook page.

I’ve never known a reader who was hungry for a verbal repast to go looking for a soup sandwich. But that’s often what they get.

It is up to the purveyor of the repast to determine whether he or she is going to serve a nutrituous, delicately balanced meal or something that’s half-baked and barely slopped together.

Am I being nitpicky?

Yes. But only where my own sensibilities are concerned.

Hey, if you want to continue slopping grey, watery soup over stale bread in a bowl, go ahead. If you want to hit it with a dash of sea salt, proclaim it prime rib and hand it out to weary, gaunt-eyed travelers who are starved for sustenance, that’s your business.

I’m only giving you notice that I will not partake. Nor will I sidle up alongside you in the soup kitchen, grab a ladle and begin flinging greasy dumplings at the wall in the hope they will stick and “be something good.”

So anyway, I was gonna devote a whole post to this notion that writers, not readers, are responsible for the clarity or lack thereof in writing.

But it’s a personal thing, so I won’t.

I’ll just pass along a wish that your characters’ eyes will remain in their head. Unless it’s a horror novel and they get whacked really, really hard.

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

PS: If you wanna see what I do when I’m having fun, swing by Harvey Stanbrough Writing in Public (https://www.facebook.com/HarveyStanbroughWritingInPublic/) and take a gander. For the month of June, you can watch short stories grow there scene by scene.

2 thoughts on “On Specificity and Clarity in Writing

  1. Good one, Harvey. I once asked a woman how her character, with no arms and no legs, managed to fix himself a meal, feed himself and transfer himself into his bed. After questioning, she confessed that she didn’t know, and just assumed the reader would figure it out. Yeesh!

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