Getting Out of Your Own Way

Among the experts that contribute new books of value to their field, scholars rank among the most innovative. They likely have conducted cutting-edge research that is blazing a new trail. Or they have so much in-depth knowledge of a subject’s particulars that they can write masterful overviews. Many of them wish to disseminate their knowledge to the general public. Yet when they submit the manuscript to a literary agent or trade editor, they are told: the writing is too academic. What does that mean?

I’ll start with the obvious: scholarly jargon. If you can’t leave out terms that you know only your peers can understand, you’re not ready for the world at large.

A far more common obstacle to clear writing is: the wiring in a scholar’s large brain. Every sentence features a complex structure, with a phrase that amplifies that meaning, and another that qualifies that one, piling on the modulations until each sentence is a labyrinth all of its own. Reading a paragraph is a formidable hill for the lay reader—and we’re talking about 200 pages of them.

My first objective in a line edit is: simpler sentences. If I see a sentence with three clauses, I’ll look to see if there is a main sentence stem that contains power all of its own. That gets bracketed off immediately. A strong statement doesn’t need ornamentation. The rump that is left out? Maybe the two dependent clauses can be turned into a declarative sentence with a single participial phrase. I’m not necessarily looking to chop. But I do know that a reader needs a break—a simple sentence—every third sentence or so. Honestly? I’ll reverse the ratio the other way around if the prose will allow it.

The second objective is: simpler words. I’m looking for anything with three syllables or more ending in –tion,–ment, or –ize, for starters. Those are almost always abstruse words. I also jump on sentences where the adjective is doing the job of the verb: “They are cognizant that...” Aren’t you really saying, “They know...” or “They recognize...”? You may think you need the exact shade of meaning, but big words rarely do that for you.

In both cases, I ask authors to read their sentences out loud. Can you actually follow that complex sentence when speaking it? Can your tongue get around those long words? If you find yourself getting tripped up, how do you think your audience will react? Actually, I know. They’ll put down the book, saying, “I’m not smart enough to read this.”

Exercise: Another good tactic is: providing examples. There is no better way to cut through complexity than offering a true-life story of Larry and Sheila. If you offer frequent illustrations, in the form of short paragraphs or longer stories, readers will get the point instantly. We are Larry and Sheila.

“A good style must first be clear.”

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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