Striving For Clarity in Writing


There seem to be two vociferous groups of writers nowadays:

1. Self-published writers who insist that they can do everything their way without regard to grammar rules, publishing conventions, and even readers.
2. Writers who want to be published by the major publishing houses, and who scrupulously follow every dictate in the hopes it will bring them the acclaim they strive for.

The first group of writers often strive for originality at the expense of readability. They take the easy way out by choosing limp words that demand to be propped up with adverbs and adjectives. Or they throw out grammar rules, which comes across not so much as being creative but as being too lazy to learn the right way. Grammar is not a straightjacket but a garment that flows softly around readers, keeping their attention on the story rather than the structure. If readers have to read and reread a paragraph to try to make sense of it, then the author has not done her job.


Some of these authors believe that readers should have to work to make sense of their story, that it’s okay if readers are pulled out of the story to look up an unfamiliar word, or to admire a particularly well-turned phrase, but readers for the most part want to be immersed in a story. If you’re watching a play, you want to see the characters, the action, the set. You do not want to be shown the backstage bickering or the ugly scaffolding. You simply want to be immersed in the play. (Unless, of course, the play is Noises Off, in which case all the bickering and scaffolding are part of the story.) And the same goes for books.

The second group of writers strives for perfection at the cost of originality, especially originality of style or voice. These writers are often too assiduous in their dislike of “was”, “it”, “ly” adverbs, adjectives, or any number of words that make our writing seem amateurish. Yes, an abundance of such words does make our writing seem amateurish and even hard to read, but removing every single was or it or modifier makes for a stilted style.

The truth of good writing lies somewhere in the middle of those two groups.

As I read in an old book called The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker: “Clarity is the first aim; economy the second; grace the third; dignity the fourth. Our writing should be a little strange, a little out of the ordinary, a little beautiful with words and phrases not met everyday, but seeming as right and natural as grass.”

  1. Jack Eason says

    Bracketing all self-publishers as people who ‘do everything their way without regard to grammar rules, publishing conventions, and even readers’, is not true Pat, and you know it!

    If your point was merely to be controversial, you have certainly achieved it. Your obvious prejudice against self-publishers in general has done you no favours, believe me. Yes, some do ignore the rules, but then there are people like myself – best selling self-published authors who do obey the rules…

  2. Derek Haines says

    So, I guess you must have included Guy Kawasaki, EL James, Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath and John Locke in your type 1 writer, who all took the ‘easy way out’ and used ‘limp words’, as you say.

    Your categorising writers into two groups is just plain silly. It smacks of snobbery and a failure to comprehend reality.

  3. rgabel says

    Though I would have preferred you worded it as “Some Indie Authors think,” I think overall you have expressed the core of the problem. Even if we edit, polish and do everything right, there is still the heart of the story, the plot. That seed that grows into a story that captures us. This I agree with.

  4. Paula Shene says

    Dang. I thought this was a good article and shared it. There is so much dinging on Indie writers that when an even handed observation comes along, we only see the criticism.

    I applaud the Indie Writer that has style, grace, and proper grammar. I strive to be in that class. Sometimes it is better to bend a rule, and also to understand that language is not static. It moves with the mores of the day.

    Trad wants Indie dead. Indie says, “Kiss my royalties.”

    I have been reading for longer than I care to admit and writing off and on for fifty per cent of that time. I write the way I read. if it is not interesting to me, it will not be interesting to my readers. As a now Indie author, I have had to employ my knowledge of layout, formatting, editing, and social skills in addition to embracing my love, telling stories.

    Each potential great is out there. Some need their typefaces cleaned, and their dangling whats-its straighten out but I think Trad knows that, and in some, it instills fear, in others, their next blockbuster, if they can sweet talk Indie into their stable.

    The dross will always be around surrounding the jewels. Happy hunting.

  5. Paula Boer says

    I think the definition of two types of writers are apt, though not the fact that they are attributed to self-published and those aspiring to trad publishing. The types of writers described certainly exist, but to me, they are the difference between emerging and experienced writers, nothing to do with how or by whom one is published.

    The main take out of the article is – practice, practice, practice, write, write, write if you want your readers to be immersed and not notice your craft.

  6. Pat Bertram says

    Ah, the difference a comma makes!

    I did not say all self-published writers. I said self-published writers who insist they can do everything their way. Big difference. (If I meant all-self-published writers, I would have written self-published writers, who insist they can do everything their way.)

  7. Pat Bertram says

    And I said “vociferous groups.” Those who strive for good writing are not vociferous. They simply wite without insisting that their way is the right way.

  8. Pat Bertram says

    Wite == write, of course.

  9. Pat Bertram says

    I’m sorry, Jack, but as much as I respect you, I can’t let you impugn my character,

    I am never controversial, merely or otherwise.

    I would never say anything against self-published writers, especially here, in this bastion of self-published writers since so many are militant, fighting a battle that has already been won.

    And I always say exactly what I mean. I said there seem to be two VOCIFEROUS groups of writers, one of which are those “self-published writers who insist they can do everything their way without regard to grammar rules”, etc.”This is a particular subgrouping of self-published writers.

  10. Jack Eason says

    In that case you should have made the distinction in your article Pat.

  11. Pat Bertram says

    Jack, I did make the distinction. In the sentence “Self-published writers who insist that they can do everything their way”, the clause “who insist that they can do everything their way” does not have a comma before it, which means it’s a restrictive clause. It restricts the subject “Self-published writers” to those who insist they can do everything their way. Leaving off the comma means that the clause is an integral part of the subject, that the subject does not stand alone.

    If I had meant all self-published writers, I would have used a comma. The comma would have alerted readers that the phrase “who insist that they can do everything their way” was a non-restrictive clause — merely a parenthetical remark describing all self-published writers, and it could have been removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. But, I did not use the comma. Hence, I did not make a sweeping generality that took in all self-published writers. The comment referred to a select few vociferous writers.

    In my experience, those who insist they can write however they wish without regard to rules are self-published or plan to be, so my sentence as I wrote it was not pejorative. Writers who wish to pursue a different avenue of publishing know they have to follow the rules of whatever publishing company or agent they are trying to impress, and they will not vociferously proclaim they can write however they wish without regard to rules.

  12. Paula Boer says

    I think the problem lies, not in the technically correct grammar, but in the assumption (wrong, as it turns out) that the article implied that the two groups mentioned are the only types of vociferous writers these days.

    I certainly misunderstood the intent, so thank you, Pat, for pointing out my error as a reader.

  13. Jack Eason says

    You can argue all you want, until the cows come home in fact, over the placing of a comma Pat, but there is no getting away from the words written – ” Self-published writers who insist that they can do everything their way without regard to grammar rules, publishing conventions, and even readers.” And the second – “Writers who want to be published by the major publishing houses, and who scrupulously follow every dictate in the hopes it will bring them the acclaim they strive for.” which clearly lumps all of the second group under the subheading ‘glory seekers’. I can tell you that judging by the comments made on Facebook and Twitter, your ill chosen words have upset many people on both sides of the publishing fence. Be more circumspect the next time you wish to, as you put it, say what you mean.

  14. Derek Haines says

    I’ve been following the comments on your post, Pat, and all I can really say it that what you wrote has turned out to be a good example of the anthesis to your post’s title, Striving for Clarity in Writing. From your comments and your justification, it would seem that it is not so easy. But I would advise that starting with a numbered list of only two categories set a harsh and divisive tone, which caused the confusion and misunderstanding and to some, offence.

  15. Craig Murray says

    I also believe there are two types of writers. Good writers and bad writers. I do not think they are determined by fame or fortune, by methodology of delivery or who has picked them up or who has not.
    We all have read horrible bloody books published in the mainstream media and horrible bloody books self published.
    There is little distinction.
    There is however a great deal in who you know and who you are over what you have to offer.
    J.K. Rowlings latest offer, The Casual Vacancy was ignored and panned right up until it was discovered she had written it and suddenly, it is a best seller.
    50 Shades of Grey is not only bloody awful writing but bad S&M and it has made a fortune.
    There is a woman I know who writes poetry that is a tornado in your chest, that evokes memories and feelings so strong you have to sit back after reading each piece. She has since quit writing by and large and hardly anyone knows her name.

  16. MFBurbaugh says

    I tend to read things a bit differently than others I guess. I did not get the take that ALL self-published writers were lumped in to your first description, nor that all mainstream published fit your second. I took it to be both ends of the extremes. There are as many types and extremes in writing as there are those who think they can write. Or wish they could.

    The bottom line is write the way you want because in the end you really only have one person to please, and that is yourself. But take no offense when others do not agree with you. 🙂

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