I have an unbreakable writing rule. It is: if I have to read one of my sentences twice, then I have failed.
Every sentence should shimmer with clarity. Your thoughts should be clear and your words should be clear. You should know where you are going and what you want to express. If you are not quite sure what you are trying to say, your Dear Reader won’t have a clue.
The chief culprit in lack of clarity is our old friend, The Fear. It has a horrid partner in crime. This is: awareness of your audience. The plotters in the background – the bad critics in your head and the actual critics, out there in the real world – are the ones who will wreck your clarity. They do this because they shatter your confidence and they make you second-guess yourself. The inner critics are shouting so loudly you don’t know what you think any more. The very thought of the literary critics out in the big, bad world makes you censor yourself or contort yourself or tidy yourself up. Then you lose your true voice and you lose your sense of direction. You don’t know what you think any more, because you are so befuddled by all these damn critics. That’s when your sentences go off a true line and start wandering around like drunken sailors at closing time.
Forget your potential audience. Forget the critics. Forget the people who won’t think you are professional enough, clever enough, literary enough. You can’t please everyone, no matter what you do. And you can’t predict what those actual critics will think anyway. They might love your writing, for all you know, but if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. You have absolutely no control over them, so there is no point in wasting your mental energy on conjuring up their trashing and smashing of your precious work.
Write for yourself. Write for your best friend. Write for the one Ideal Reader in your head. (I’ve said this before; I will say it again. It’s so important that I can’t repeat it enough.)
Since I started teaching writing, I’ve been mooching about the internet, having a look at other writing sites. I am astonished by some of the hack advice that is running around in the wild. I try to concentrate on the positive and not get mired in the negative. I try to admire the good and ignore the bad. But boy, there are some charlatans out there.
On one trawl, I found this title:
‘Affinities & Motivations That Explain Why Writers Create in a Particular Medium.’
Do you know what that even means? I don’t. If I wrote a title like that, I would run myself out of town on a rail.
Amazingly, it is on a website that shouts, in boldface type: Write Better, Get Published. It should say: Write Worse, Go and Live Under a Bush.
I suspect that people who write like that are scared. They are frightened that if they do not use big, academic, abstract words, they might not be taken seriously. They are so scared that they end up not making sense.
Be brave, and you will be clear. Listen to your true voice, and your Dear Reader will hear that voice and know that voice and understand that voice.
Read every sentence for clarity. Don’t be afraid to be plain. There is a beauty in simplicity. Let that beauty shine.