Good literature isn’t a chore to read. A character performs an action, and I know what’s going on without having to reread sentences a hundred times. Even if the character is figurative, such as a personified earthly element, that subject’s action verb should stand close by: “Light twinkled off the water while Darkness lurked below.” (Of course, if you write a metaphor, the nearby verb would be linking: “The sun is a angry beast today.”) When characters connect with verbs right away, the sentences evoke imagery in the minds of readers. As well, reading flows. This means your readers won’t fall asleep after the first couple of pages.
don’t be too fancy
When you write, don’t bother replacing everyday words with fancy synonyms. Nothing stunts reading flow like having to stop to look up the meaning of every other word—soporific? No. Boring.
cut out the muck
I had to read lengthy, unclear passages in a grammar-and-style class I took a few years ago. The sentences were long and the verbs passive. Therefore, I’d have to underline the subject and verb(s) to cut out the muck between the them. This helped me understand what I thought the author/narrator was trying to say, which was important because my assignment was to rewrite the sentence more concisely.
Tip: Remember who your audience is. My idea of a “fancy word” could be everyday lingo to a rocket scientist. If you’re writing nonfiction, you likely know which words your readers commonly use. If you’re writing fiction, read the genre you’re writing to get a feel for language common to that level of reading and that specific genre.
The perils of passive voice
Passive voice at times is necessary. When it’s not, it often complicates reading comprehension and flow. When subjects and verbs lack a clear connection, readers struggle to connect with characters and their unique plights.
passive voice, unclear subject and action:
“Kim was inevitably taken from the plane back to the terminal but not without being assisted by an air marshal.”
Words in the above sentence aren’t necessarily fancy–English speakers use them every day. However, the sentence still lacks clarity. What does “inevitably taken” mean, why was Kim taken from the plane, and how did the air marshal help her? We don’t know these answers because Kim is not performing an action; the action is being done to her.
Also notice how unnecessary words and phrases muck up clarity, examples being inevitably, back, and but not without.
“Kim staggered from the plane to the terminal, hanging like a ragdoll from the air marshal’s arm.”
This sentence describes what is happening, and it evokes imagery. It tells me who the main character is, Kim, and that she is having trouble balancing. My guess is she’s under the influence of a substance. If she were having a stroke or other medical crisis, the marshal would objectively show more compassion: Kim would probably be in a wheelchair, the air marshal pushing it. The air marshal might even say to her, “Don’t worry, an ambulance is on its way.”
Readers can assume that Kim is drunk or high, but the reason for her condition is a mystery. She could be an alcoholic or addict, or for all we know, she may have been drugged by her nemesis. The point is: Kim’s clear action prompts us to see what’s going on thus care about what might happen to her next.
When I read any type of literature, I’m looking for entertainment or knowledge, not a struggle. I expect to understand an author’s point without having to go through a decoding process. Clear, concise sentences deliver theme and imagery, helping readers connect with your story or the point of your nonfiction work.
Writing is craft. Hone it by continually editing the fog out of your sentences. The more you do it, the more you’ll be able to differentiate between a concise sentence and a boring, wordy, (laborious) sentence that will lose readers’ attention.