Thursday, July 11, 2013

Clarity: one word can land you in a heap ‘o trouble

There are many words in the English language that are wonderful, precise, and so chalk-full of implied meaning that you only need that one word, instead of five or ten, to give a line impact. 

The problem is when a strong word can imply drastically different meanings, depending on the context.

Here’s the first draft example I’m going to use from SCARLIGHT:

And that’s what I want to paint. Light on her body. Just that.
Not Kell, the person, but Kell, the object.
I’m not interested in anything else.
But if I want to paint her, first I have to make her agree to take her clothes off. To show me all her scars at once. To stand still and obedient until I’ve had my fill.

Now, I’m using several strong words to get my point across in that snippet. Unfortunately, I ended up over-compensating, and got myself into trouble.

Your impression of Jay, from that little bit, is probably that’s he’s creepy. A stalker. Possibly an abusive, predatory sociopathic criminal in the making.

Let’s look at the words I used in one line, then let’s look at the same piece of writing after it’s been edited for clarity.
To stand still and obedient until I’ve had my fill.

This bolded line is the heart of the problem.

Now, what I wanted the reader to get out of this short snippet was:

  1. Jay has a very strong desire towards Kell.
  2. As a painter, he’s looking at her as a potential model, so obviously he would want to paint her under the best conditions: good light, and her holding a pose properly/not moving.
  3. Because of past baggage, he is unconsciously trying to maintain distance and only see her as a model, to the point where I wanted it to be obvious that he’s actively lying to himself.

That’s a lot to pack into 64 words, right?

Too much in fact. There are three problems with that first-draft snippet:

  1. It’s too short, therefore not enough clarity/explanation, so it’s easy to leap to conclusions/misunderstand.
  2. The specific word ‘obedient’ is way too strong a word. It insinuates that Jay wants total power/control over Kell, when all I really wanted to say, was that he badly wants her to be a ‘good/ideal’ model.
  3. The insinuation, based on the layout of the entire bolded sentence, that Jay is not viewing Kell as a human being, that his desire matters more than what she would/could want to do. This builds on the previous lines, “Not Kell, the person, but Kell, the object.”, and blows it way out of proportion.

Now, here it is again after one edit (as in, do not consider this ‘polished’ yet). Note that I did not touch 6 out of the original 8 lines:

And that’s what I want to paint. Light on her body. Just that.
Not Kell, the person, but Kell, the object.
I’m not interested in anything else. She could be a potted plant, or a bowl of fruit. I just want her to be my model, but if I want to paint her, first I have to make her agree to take her clothes off. To show me all her scars at once. To pose under ideal lighting conditions until I’m done.

I wanted to keep the insinuation of a power-struggle, because... well, it makes sense with the characters, their backgrounds, and the fact they’re both scarred up, physically, emotionally, and psychology.

So, what did I do to try to fix? Well, first I tried to remove the possible insinuation of sexual predation by specifying, “She could be a potted plant, or a bowl of fruit.” Hopefully, that also makes it clearer that he’s intentionally trying to only look at her that way... lying to himself. Then I touched up the original middle line, added, “I just want her to be my model...” to the beginning. Finally, I completely re-wrote that troublesome ‘obedient’ line at the end, again, to make it clear this isn’t about holding her hostage, forcing her to do something she doesn’t want to do, de-humanizing her... he just wants her to be a ‘good model’ because he badly wants to paint her.

Now, did I accomplish those three points I was aiming for, and remove the three problems that took it too far?

(Please go ahead and tell me... I very much want to know. I know at this moment it's super repetitive sounding, which will be fixed later, but for now, it's enough if the 'bad connotation' has been removed.)

Strong words make for great writing, but you should always look at how they could be taken wrong. A potential agent, or reader, might misunderstand one word on your first page, and you’ve lost your one chance with them. Usually, it’s a word, like ‘assault’, that twists a sentence down a very dark avenue.

To take one step further, think of how many online write-ups/articles vilify authors, or certain books, simply because of a few choice lines taken out of context. I’m always struck by that during ‘Banned Book Week’, which is sometime in the autumn.

Remember: words absorb new meaning over time, but the older, less-used meanings are still lurking around in the basement, possible gnawing bone splinters and crunchy spiders.

Don’t let your words be used a weapon against you. Clarity is your friend :)


  1. Ah the fine nuances of language. It's what makes it the greatest invention of all time, and mostly responsible for our civilization. Imagine what it would be like if language didn't exist. Not just talking about misreading or taking something out of context. I'm talking about a world where no one understood anything another said. That would be something.

    1. Heh, I always think that we spend 10% of our words saying what we think, and the other 90% trying to clarify what we meant, or did not mean, in those first 10%

  2. I still don’t care for “object”
    “object” implies a “thing”

    Net Kell the person but Kell as the subject or
    Not Kell the person but Kell as a still life, not as a portrait

    in which case he would not display her head

    1. I already know how I'm going to re-write that little section, I just haven't done it yet. I do want the word 'object' in there, because I do want the insinuation that he's trying to look at her as only that, as in, trying to eliminate all emotional ties, even before he's started.

  3. First off, my comments may have sounded a little harsh lately. I don't mean them to be, and I really do see the points you are trying to make, even if I only accept them at 90% (and all writers are different, so I don't believe either of us are actually wrong). Anyway, I really preferred the first incarnation, although I see your point and you know Jay far better than I do. Suggestion is a powerful thing. Did anyone tell you that Jay seemed creepy here, rather than you reaching the conclusion yourself? (Although he seems a little creepy to me.) After we read a story in my English class my teacher started concluding to us that the male lead was probably physically abusive. Nobody in the class thought that to begin with, but since she pointed it out they thought that too. Except for me, of course. It's certainly possible, but the hints were far too vague to conclude as much. Anyway, (I know, I used that word twice :p) but perhaps a smaller change would be in order? It's up to you, in any case.

    1. Like I said, this is just my opinion, and how I write. I'm not saying I have any answers. Some people will think I'm totally off-base, and others may find a grain of connection, and they can expand from there.

      Oh, and I didn't think you were being harsh, so... ask away :)

      The first incarnation is sharper writing, the second is messy/bloated 'cause I did a really fast edit/swap-out, so yeah, the first one is technically better. When I actually re-write it for real, it'll read more like the first in terms of rhythm/etc, but without that unintended connotation.

      I didn't mean it to be there, so I don't want it there. Thus, going for clarity ;)

      Remember, this is totally first-draft, so I may even cut this part out entirely if it makes the scene read better.

      I knew the wording was too strong, and passed it off to someone (without mentioning my concern), and that CP came back and confirmed he was 'creepy'.


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)