Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crafting Clarity

By Darvell Hunt

I recently read the following online national news story title:

"Feds tamp down fears leaks mean BP well unstable"

This took me a few times to read to understand what the news writer was actually trying to say. In writing, this is rarely a good thing. You do not want to force people to reread sentences to understand your meaning—this interrupts the reading process, the flow of the story, and often frustrates the reader.

Why was this title hard for me to understand? Well, to start, it's hard to tell if "fears" and “leaks” are plural nouns or verbs. It's also difficult to understand that "well" is a noun and not an adjective.

So, how can we write more clearly and catch unclear writing such as this before it gets out to the world?

First of all, I do realize that news headlines must be short. Often in the news world, clarity is sacrificed for print space—the Headlines section of Jay Leno's late-night talk show should be all the evidence we need to realize this. But, that doesn't mean this title could not have been written to better relay what was meant. Consider this simple revision:

"Feds tamp down fears that leaks mean BP oil well is unstable."

Now granted, this now becomes a real sentence instead of a news title, but by adding three simple words (that, oil, is), the meaning is clearer. But still, I don't think it's quite there yet. I would further suggest that we change "tamp down" to something simpler, like "downplay," which gives us this:

"Feds downplay fears that leaks mean BP oil well is unstable."

It seems to me that "tamp down" is unnecessarily complex—and may even distract from the intended meaning instead of add to it, as "clamp down" more accurately represents physical action, rather than a more abstract term, which I think it what we want here. (If you're unfamiliar with this new story, I apologize, but honestly, where have you been hiding? Under a rock? LOL. Or, more appropriately for this topic, at the bottom of the ocean?)

In any case, it seems that with a very small amount of editing, we can greatly improve the clarify of our writing. You certainly don't need to edit to perfection to get your meaning across to the reader, but it sure does help to spend an extra second or two to think: "Hey, what's my reader going to think this means?"

I believe that understanding our readers is a big part of being a good writer. But maybe I'm just being greatness with oblong words that don't primarily mean what I'm exactly it is my meaning that is obviously supposed to come along toward the reader.


Jolene Perry said...

This is where reading things out loud to someone else is VERY helpful. For me anyways...

Darvell Hunt said...

I totally agree, Jolene. In fact, I have a program called TextAloud that is quite good at reading your text aloud to you. I paste in a chapter at a time and have it read to me while I follow along. I'm amazed at some of the typos I catch using this method.

In fact, I have incorporated TextAloud into my process for preparing final edits. My work is not done until I've gone completely through my manuscript with my computer reading it to me.

So, good call! ;)

Ann Best said...

An excellent post that shows how easy it is for us not to "hear" the problems in our own writing sometimes. Reading out loud does help tremendously.

kbrebes said...

Well said, Darvell. Also, your TextAloud sounds intriguing. I hope you will forgive my rude comment on AI last Friday to you, Ted, and Nichole. I went out into the country for two days into the peace and quiet and away from the noise and traffic of the city. I thought how wonderful you and Ted were to share your concerns aloud. Isn't that what we women are always hoping for from men? To share their feelings? I decided you and Ted are pretty special. I admire your determination, and I'm sure one day I will feel all the scary things you guys have felt. I'm a newbie, so it's coming! Take Care. : ) Kathleen

Evelyn Campbell Curtis said...

When I first started writing, I felt like I had to come up with unique sentence structures. It did not take me long to realize that simple is better. I personally hate rereading sentences, especially when I am reading a work of fiction.

Steve said...

Great post Darvell & I like your comment about Text Aloud. Great idea.