Be Clear: Images and Movement

Be Clear: Images and Movement

Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.

Matthew Arnold

So far, I have presented writing as a liberating activity that anyone can undertake, and anyone can perform well. It can be. It can also be a struggle—even when everything is going well, even when a writer has had success. Even the best ideas can turn sour with rotten writing. If writing is unclear, the idea is lost. Sometimes the results of invention and drafting are average, but not good; good, but not great; great, but still not ready. To make it ready, writers need to do the real work: revising, rewriting, and editing.

You might think, “I knew it! Now the other shoe is going to drop. He told us writing was easy and wonderful and…” Stop. I never wrote “easy.” And the other shoe that I am going to drop is preferable to the hammer unsuccessful teachers drop on your paper and your grades. The average teachers are

Men’s Saucony Guide 13. The “other shoe” is not dropping.

reactive. They wait until they read student writing and then comment about the mistakes. They might write numbers or initials or code words or verbal venom next to incomprehensible passages and poor constructions. Good teachers show students how to avoid the numbers, initials, codes, harangues. That is the goal here: avoid the readers’ ire by learning to revise.

I start at the simplest point: a complete thought. If you cannot write (or revise to create) a strong sentence, then you will struggle to communicate even the strongest, most brilliant ideas. Readers will abandon your work if they find it too difficult to navigate. Consider these thoughts from Zinsser:

Who is this elusive creature, the reader? The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds—a person assailed by other forces competing for attention…It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough. (9)

To be careful, we must revise sentences so that the reader can visualize our ideas more easily.

When we learn to read, we do so with pictures, not concepts. Think about the first books that were read to you and then you later learned to read

Image result for child being read to clipart free
We learned to read books with images and high imagery words.

yourself. They may have contained princes and princesses; cows and sheep; cars and trucks. Regardless, they were full of “high imagery” words. Professor of Reading Education Charles Hargis writes:

 Words with high imagery level are associated with concrete objects. They represent things that are mentally picturable. Dog, house, car, bird, etc. are high imagery nouns. Idea, mile, air, etc.  are low imagery nouns. They are not mentally picturable…High imagery words require significantly fewer repetitions to learn than do low imagery words, when they are presented in isolation. (41)

Thus, it makes sense that your earliest books contained an ample number of pictures. Plenty of pictures. Pictures on every page. Which words are least likely to appear in your earliest readers: tooth, tree, truth, tiger, apple, ant, anger, alligator? Even with their easily pronounced phonetical makeup, truth and anger are abstract concepts. They are hard to visualize, especially for a child. Sure, the child might recognize another person’s anger. We might conjure a situation in which someone is telling the truth. But can a child “visualize” those on a page?

I am not suggesting that we are writing for children; I am only stating that we prefer visualizing what we are reading—in large part due to how we are trained. Think about Chemistry textbooks. If you were to remove all images, diagrams, and flow-charts, and kept only the text, they probably would be difficult to comprehend. Why? Because the atoms, electrons, protons, etc. are only seen through a microscope. Even with the images, diagrams, and flow-charts, many texts require more focus than the average reader is willing to give.

We help our readers by limiting, if not eliminating, abstract or non-visual subjects from our sentences. (Of course, if the abstract idea or non-visual item is already well-defined or part of the readers’ common inventory of ideas, then we can still produce clear prose with occasional usages of such words as subjects.) We want subjects that readers can see. Noted author of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams refers to such subjects as “characters” and states:

We create a problem for readers when for no good reason we do not name characters in subjects, or worse, delete them entirely, like this:

There was fear that there would be a recommendation for a budget reduction.

Who fears? Who recommends? Who reduces? It is important to express actions in verbs, but the first principle of a clear style is this: Make the subjects of most of your verbs the main characters in your story. (47).

Others might refer to these characters as “doers” to avoid confusion that between fictional characters and the visual subjects we still need in academic writing. Either way, an unclear sentence can be unmuddied by finding or establishing a doer or a character. Consider the following paragraph:

              Arguments occurred within the student government meeting. The cause was disagreement over the allocation of funds. Paying for a memorial to the late school mascot, Sir Giggles, was a priority for many. Yet, limitations on the yearly monetary assets concerned leadership since the  responsibility fell upon the organization to ensure the occurrence of homecoming festivities  possessed ample fanfare.

Each sentence is grammatically correct. But is the writing clear? Of course not. Look at the subjects of independent and dependent clauses: arguments, cause, paying for a memorial, limitations, responsibility, occurrence. They are

Image result for students arguing with each other clipart free
If the story is about student’s arguing, let’s see them argue.

hard to visualize. There are other issues with the paragraph such as concision and the paucity of action verbs—but we will visit those topics later. To revise the paragraph, I need to think about the “story” I am telling and who is involved. I need to make these people the subjects.

              Members of the student government argued about their budget. Many prioritized paying for a memorial to the late school mascot, Sir Giggles. The leaders knew money was limited because   the student government needed to ensure that students and alumni enjoyed a festive    homecoming.

I have obviously made the sentences more concise in myriad ways, but the improved clarity started with identifying the characters and making them the subjects. I also invented a character for the relative clause at the end (“that students and alumni enjoyed a festive homecoming”). In revising, writers need to be aware of context and think about who the doer most likely would be. For example, take these two sentences:

              A stricter dress code was enforced to the dismay of the student body.

           A bill was presented that would require dog owners to walk their dogs daily.

The “characters” present in the sentences (“student body” and “dog owners”) are not the main actors. Who is? Who would enforce a dress code? School administrators (or more plainly, principals). Who votes on bills? Context from previous sentences might determine whether it is the state house of representatives or the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate. We could just say state legislators or Congress, depending on the level of government. Or they might be county commissioners. While it is good practice to revise sentences in isolation, remember that in our academic texts, we will have more context to guide our decisions.

Step one of clarity: Decide upon a visual character (usually a person or group of people) and make that that the subject.

As one of my professors insisted, “Research does not say anything; researchers do.”

For the second step towards clearer sentences, think about the “what” of the matter. In other words, what are these doers actually doing. Readers appreciate movement. They want those characters to advance the narrative and to lead them closer to a conclusion.

Again, I quote Williams: “Principle of Clarity 2: Make important actions verbs” (30).

Let’s re-examine the sample paragraph I provided earlier:

Arguments occurred within the student government meeting. The cause was disagreement over the allocation of funds. Paying for a memorial to the late school mascot, Sir Giggles, was a     priority for many. Yet, limitations on the yearly monetary assets concerned leadership since the responsibility fell upon the organization to ensure the occurrence of homecoming festivities possessed ample fanfare.

My verbs are occurred, was, was, concerned, fell, ensure, possessed. What does it mean to “occur”? If I asked you to “occur,” could you do it? Then two verbs of “being.” Can you “concern”? Yes, you can fall, but here it is in a figurative sense. We can act “to ensure” a consequence, but in many cases, we need to know what that specific action might be. Here, the action is probably spending money. Finally, we can possess objects, but that does not imply much action. In this case, we are using “possess” as an alternative to “has.”

When I revised, I found verbs within the sentences or created them to fit the context. How do we “find” verbs? We look at nouns that hide actions. Williams calls these “nominalizations” (32)—verbs have been made into nouns. In my sample paragraph, they appear in abundance: arguments à argue; causeà cause; allocationà allocate; priorityà prioritize; limitationsà limit; occurrenceà occur. The word responsibility is also a nominalization, but of an adjective, responsible. In this paragraph, the nominalizations appear as subjects a few times, an unmistakable sign of an unclear sentence.

Aside from appearing as the subjects of sentences with weak verbs, nominalizations can darken our sentences in other places. They frequently appear as objects in prepositional phrases, as well. Here are some examples:

Series One: Action Hidden             

Directions were for Joe to think of a strategy before the game.

              Undertaking the process of analysis, Joe created a strategy.

              His teammates made Joe the subject of mockery when his strategy resulted in failure.

Series Two: Action Shown

              They asked Joe to strategize before the game.

              Joe analyzed and created a strategy.

              Teammates mocked Joe when the strategy failed.

In the examples, note how bold-faced words in the first series are nouns; note that they become verbs in the second series. If we find nominalizations, we can frequently find a way to give the sentence more action, and to thus clarify it.

How can writers know when their writing is unclear? After all, when they drafted, the language may have seemed natural to them. First, I suggest that writers read their work out loud. If they stumble over a sentence, or even part of it, then there might be an issue with clarity. Second, I suggest writers circle their nouns. If they find nouns that are low imagery, then they should look for characters. Third, I suggest writers underline (or circle in a different color), their verbs. If a paragraph contains more than 25-30% verbs of being or verbs that imply little action, then they should consider revising.

Writers need to learn to revise for clarity; they will be unlikely to internalize these rules (use characters as subjects and use actions as verbs) without many hours of practice. They might struggle. That is part of the process.

Works Cited

Hargis, Charles H. Teaching and Testing in Reading: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Parents.

Springfield, IL, Charles C. Thomas, 1999.

Williams, Joseph M. and Gregory G. Colomb. Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 10th Ed., Longman, 2010.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. 5th ed., HarperCollins, 1994.

©Hunter M. Brimi, 2020

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *