Monday, December 10, 2012

Clarification: The Edit that is Overlooked and Under-Stressed

Before I begin the meat of my discussion, I wanted to give everyone some updates on the holiday raffle. I just received the fiftieth contestant, which means that if we can hit one hundred contestants, you’re odds of winning will be the same as they are now—remember I’m giving out an extra manuscript critique for every hundred individuals who join.

My email has been a bit backed up with all the lovely emails I’ve received, so if you haven’t heard from me or received your edits, you have not been forgotten. I might be lagging a week to a few weeks behind, but I will get back to you. Still, feel free to check in with me if you are nervous or have any questions.

Clarification: The Edit that is Overlooked and Under-Stressed
I have to admit, I’m giddy writing this post. Clarification is hands down the edit I give out the most, and it also happens to be the edit I most love to give. Why? Regardless of each writer’s idiosyncrasies, clarification is always overlooked to some extent.

And yes, you’re doing it. All the time. Even you published authors.

The truth is, you can never eradicate reader confusion completely, but your goal should be to leave readers asking mainly the questions that you deliberately withheld from them—and not any others.

Unfortunately writers often make the mistake of being too vague or unclear, from where people are in any one setting, to how much time has passed, to why a character inexplicably reacted the way he or she did, to difficult-to-follow conversation, to pronoun confusion…the list goes on and on and on.

I’m going to be honest and tell you that this post is not as cut and dry as my other posts. I cannot point to clear areas where the problem lies, although I can give you a solution.

Clarity: Why it’s Hard to Discuss
This topic is so difficult to discuss because it encompasses literally every aspect of your story, from pronoun confusion—which occurs in a single sentence—to holes in character motivation, which can be present throughout an entire novel.

Worse, most writers can have only an inkling of where they’re vague. This is because to most writers, what’s written down is at least passably clear, and the rest of the story is up in their noggin. Writers’ minds can conveniently fill in any gaps in the story that lack clarity. This is where writers create confusion: areas where they cannot easily see where they are unclear.

A List of Potential Areas of Confusion
Because there are literally dozens and dozens of different areas where writers can potentially confuse their audience, I’ll list the five main categories and the some of the common types of confusion that arise.

Not enough thoughts
Too few thoughts can make a character’s actions and dialogue appear unnatural. An easy remedy is to insert an additional sentence or multiple sentences that explain the character’s actions and dialogue.

Thoughts do not reflect actions or dialogue
I’m not sure how you writers do this, but every once in a while I’ll come across thoughts that contradict the surrounding action and dialogue. This may be a case of either not including enough thoughts to explain away the discrepancy, or a stray sentence that accidentally made it through a previous round of edits.


Too little description
While I often encourage writers to thin out description, too little description has it’s own problems. I notice this most often when characters have physically moved within a scene, and when time has passed.


Logical jumps in dialogue
Sometimes characters make logical jumps in dialogue from insubstantial evidence. The best way to demonstrate this is with an example.

Thomas: “I saw a pretty girl at the mall today.”
David: “Was it Melissa?”

Okay, there are many things wrong with this exchange, such as the wooden conversation, but the problem I want to focus on is the logical jump. David jumps to the conclusion that out of the thousands of pretty girls that could’ve been at the mall, Thomas saw Melissa. In reality, David would probably have no clue who the pretty girl was (nor care too much). A way to fix this is for Thomas to be more specific, or to rephrase David’s response to reflect a more natural reaction.

Understanding another character without enough supporting evidence
This is similar to logical jumps, but it has more to do with two characters who are talking and are discussing something that the reader should be able to follow but doesn’t. The most common example I see is when characters make jokes that another character gets but are not clear to the reader. I will admit that I’ve come across this in my own writing, and I’ve squinted at the exchange for minutes trying to figure out what was supposed to be so funny about the punch line.


When actions are inconsistent with thoughts and dialogue
This is essentially the same edit as when thoughts are inconsistent with action and dialogue (discussed above). This is easily fixable, because usually all this takes is inserting a sentence that explains or hints at why the characters are pursuing a course of action that is inconsistent with their thoughts and dialogue. All actions need some amount of explanation, even if it’s a single intentionally vague sentence such as, “I had a plan.”

Technical Errors

Pronoun confusion
If two men or two women are talking, using pronouns in place of names can be tricky, and can lead to unclear statements.

Sarah talked to Sue as she brushed her hair.

In the example, who is brushing whose hair? Either could be. For these types of problems, I’d suggest either replacing the pronoun with the proper noun (Sue or Sarah), or rephrasing the sentence.

Excessive fragments
Not only is it considered bad form to overuse fragments, but they can also—not too surprisingly—lead to confusion. I’ve only seen this a few times, but in general if you tend to overuse fragments, consider rewriting them as complete sentences.

How you can Clarify your Manuscript
Edit. And edit some more. Even if you’re sick of your manuscript, give it another read through. And for this particular edit, you’ll definitely want to seek out family, friends, and/or critique partners, since clarifying your manuscript is an edit that requires a fresh set of eyes. 


  1. Awesome post. I just started editing the first draft of my novel, and this really helped. :)

    1. I’m so glad to hear this is helping you edit the first draft of your novel! Good luck with the editing!

  2. It's ridiculously easy to miss something because you fill in the gaps yourself. I also have a problem with 'orphans' in my work, bits that made sense BEFORE I cut out a section or chapter elsewhere that somehow got missed.

    I'm told, but I haven't done this myself, not yet, anyway, that going backward through your manuscript can help you catch things that you might otherwise miss. I have done edits with the upside-down just to give me a different view, but I wouldn't want to do a novel that way.