Wednesday Workshop: To Communicate ...Clearly

What we do is communicate.

There are things which make this more difficult, and things which make this easier.

Grammar are the rules in which we operate, and their purpose is not to be used as a "gotcha" or way to prove our superiority over each other by finding faults in others - grammar are the 'rules of the road' in which we use to be able to communicate clearly. Their sole use is to help us better understand each other.

To understand.

That last sentence breaks the rules, but you get it. Artists will typically tell you, "you learn the rules first, and then you can break them." If an artist twists the rules of perspective to create an effect, chances are the artist knew those rules and knowingly broke them to create that effect. Happy accidents happen, but greatness is hard to sustain purely through happiness and accidents.

And no, not many of us will ever master every obscure grammatical rule, but we can work at them and get better every time, so do not feel bad.

You only fail when you quit.

So grammar is in that "helpful" category in our communication toolbox, but is there anything else? First off, I don't want to call these rules, which I almost did, but I deleted that sentence and mentioned this fact to make a point. These are not rules per se, but "things we can do to communicate better." Tools in our communication toolbox, let's call them.

You ever listen to someone and they say ten repetitive and useless words for every meaningful word they say? With 'word count' being the sole measure of our value as writers (and I am being sarcastic here), this one cuts to the bone because who doesn't want more? Supersize our paragraphs please! If something is worth saying, it is worth saying thrice! If someone loves my writing, they must love every word which pours out of every orifice of mine, no matter how trite or how repetitive.

Even that last paragraph went overboard, and you can see what I mean.

Part of communicating clearly is using only the words we need, and knowing when we are being boorish, wordy, and overbearing. You will find a lot of the great writing tools come from speaking, and while they are two distinct arts the same general guidelines apply. You don't want to bore your audience. You should be wary of repetition and dragging things out. There is an important to delivery, beats, tone, and even cadence.

There is even an importance to the pause.

The spacing of words.

The flow of thought being replicated on the page. Giving people time to think, to process, and digest. To avoid delivering everything in huge, difficult to read paragraphs. To understand when your writing is too dispersed, and when a large, robust and supportive paragraph is needed. Sometimes complexity is called for, and your words will have more impact when you build a great construction with purpose, relation, and meaning. Constructing a great paragraph is an art, as it is like constructing a great and complicated idea with all sorts of support, answers for questions, and a flow of ideas which support each other from start to finish.

Ideas which would mean less sitting out here all alone, like this sentence.

That last sentence is meaningless out there all by itself, and it says nothing. While there are times when you want to let a line sit on the page all by itself, there are other times when that line only means something when it has good company. Like a fine wine without a great dish, some ideas mean less all by themselves. Some thoughts need to be near others. Some thoughts exist to support others, or need to be in a place where they answer the question of a skeptical reader.

"So what?"

So what. Those two words define our existence. They lie at the heart of fame and obscurity. They sit at the foot of our works, are painted across the covers of our books as people browse by them, and are a question we constantly asked and also ask ourselves.

My life. Her life. His life. This book. That idea. This character. That emotion. This review. That workshop.

So what?

Our job as a writer is to answer that question. Or not, but in doing so we are making that decision not to answer the question - not by omission or forgetfulness, but by choice and design.

You will find that 'I choose not to do this' thought process helpful. Creation is not just a process of putting things in, it is also a choice of what you leave out.

And sometimes, leaving things out is a good idea, especially for repetitive and supporting material. If we bog our answer down in excess words we will lose people. If we repeat ourselves we will lose people. If we present unclear ideas our ability to communicate is reduced.

There is this tendency to think every word we deliver is gold. We have this hubris as writers that 'more of us is better.' More words. Longer chapters. Twice the dialog. But more of us is not always the best of us. The best of who we are is not our us in our entirety. It is just the best parts, boiled down to the absolute minimum. All of our wit in one statement, not three ideas saying the same thing.

Brevity. An economy of words. A succinctness and adherence to saying the least while delivering the most those words can. It is why vocabulary matters. It is also why simple words matter. Because being able to communicate an idea cleanly and without excess baggage helps us get the idea across.

So think about your favorite speakers and communicators and watch what they do - not just what they say. Take a step back and observe how someone who is a really skilled orator presents an argument or point. How they lay things out. How they answer the "so what?" question. Now apply that to your writing. How would your favorite speaker present a character to a crowd? If you were writing, you may say something like this:
She was a blond, thirty-ish office manager with shapely curves and a pleasant smile. She has had a lot of troubles in her life...
Your favorite speaker, standing in front of an audience, may say something like this:
She was the type of office worker you would think was too pretty to have the job. Her perky smile was one only a blond could have.
See? I feel the former has this stale, trite, first-draft musty air to it and is something we have saw many times before. The latter has this snap to it, a cool freshness like a bite of celery, and something that would make your ears perk up if someone said it on a stage in front of an easily distracted and cell-phone obsessed audience. You may hear some laughs or groans after that line because it connects to people, for good or for bad - but it connects.

Your job is not to bore or to simply 'be a writer' of words, it is to communicate and connect. And by connect I don't mean, "get people to like you." A connection implies contact in a positive or negative way. Connection does not mean 'winning a popularity contest.'

I could go on about blondes all day and get accused of all sorts of things, but that is my right as a writer of words. Ours is the last medium which the artist is free to offend because our audiences are smart enough to understand and appreciate why we do what we do. Stand up comedy died years ago because of this hyper-sensitivity and mass-marketing of the product. This is important to remember, because you don't want to write your characters to be the reader's best friends.

You want them to be themselves because this is how they best connect. They aren't fake, they are familiar - for good or bad. Some books I read and it feels like every character is trying way too hard to be liked by me, the reader. It drives me crazy because the ones I remember are the ones that I had a problem with, and it is one of those things where if I like everybody I end up liking nobody. If there is a character I hate, then I am naturally looking for the character that contrasts that and I will like that one even more.

Contrast. Do not be afraid of that word or what it means to write it. It means all sorts of racist, sexist, bigoted, and hateful people will visit your books as characters. It may mean some find redemption, and it may mean that some do not. It is writing with a brave and certain voice where you are not afraid of words or ideas, and you bring that emotional honesty to your work.

There are people I agree with, and then there are people who make a connection with me - people I like or people I loathe - but I am connected with them. The things they say make me pay attention. They stop me in my tracks. I listen and have feelings about the things which they say.

Connection is rarely a neutral and indifferent experience.

If someone read your book out loud, how would the audience react? Be the book that gets the gasps, makes people laugh, and yes - makes some people leave the room. Be proud of the people you piss off, because at least you are getting a reaction. Many up and coming writers would give anything to just get that out of people. A reaction.

In indifference and silence the writer finds stagnation and creative death.

Be vocal.


But most importantly, connect.