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The Revelation of Clear Writing

Posted on Mon, May 27 2013 8:21 am by Ben Obler

Flickr CC: Jamie McCaffrey

I scurried down the ramp to Track 17 at Grand Central, ducked onto the 8:10 to Stamford with minutes to spare, and got out my laptop to work on novel feedback for a client. I’d left off in a section about detail and its influence on tone. I found my place and reread the passage I had cited from the author’s work: “The sounds of jungle nightlife came alive around us as we stood in the encroaching darkness.”

What was it I had wanted to illustrate through this line?

The seat was small and uncomfortable—no better than a plane, where the laptop lid must incline at 75 degrees, more closed than open. I shifted, bruising up my knees with no improvement. Other passengers boarded, toting iPhones and muffins, briefcases and coffee. Then the conductor came on the PA, saying, “This is the eight ten to Stamford…” A long pause issued and the only sound was of phasing circuitry and the air of a hollow room. Finally the conductor spoke again: ”Stops at HarlemHundredTwentyFifthStreetMountVernonEastFordam...”

I can type that because I know the stops. But a first-time rider would have heard the equivalent of a palm-to-keyboard mash. It was mud. Was it the writer in me or the citizen who was affront by this insensible delivery?

There’s so much confusion in life, and language affords the chance for clarity: this man was wasting an opportunity. Isn’t it a civic duty, when part of your job is to help people manage their lives in just the tiniest way, to lend your interest to the task? Does the conductor not realize that unclear information is an aggravation with the same potential for detriment as misinformation?

There are over one hundred tracks on forty-four platforms in Grand Central Terminal, accessed via faceless corridors at the four corners of a main concourse whose grandeur arrests visual attention. Train routes are named, confusingly, by their end cities, thus giving the title “Southeast” to a train that runs due north. Some lines are express, some are local—though whose locality they serve isn’t revealed. You are asked whether you want to buy peak or off-peak tickets without a chart of peak times in sight. The best view of the departures and arrivals board, thorough study of which helpfully orients a first-time rider, is from the center of the main concourse—an asteroid field of careening travelers. Seek the shelter of the information booth at the center of it all, and you will surely be in line until after your train departs.

So it’s a pertinent delivery, that conductor’s announcement. If you’ve made it to a seat, the one thing you want is confirmation that you are on the right train—that you are headed to your stop.

Ready for it? The tie-in?

Specificity. Clarity.

As a writer, you are the conductor. Your reader is the passenger. You must be accommodating. Are you helping or hindering your readers to get where they want to go? Are you providing that comfort and assurance?

“The sounds of jungle nightlife came alive around us as we stood in the encroaching darkness.”

This sentence was muddy, like the conductor’s broadcast. What jungle nightlife? It wasn’t the thoom thoom thoom of a subwoofer, was it? Or the laughter of revelers after bar close? Okay, then. There are different types of nightlife. Being specific with sensory detail is one way we can deliver clarity to our passengers--I mean, our audience. As a conductor, you wouldn’t announce, “Welcome aboard. This is a train. It rides on tracks.” That’s not helpful enough.

“The encroaching darkness” can improve too. I bet you can come up with something. What gets dark and how does it look to some one standing on the jungle floor? Me, I’d go with the wide trunk of a banyan tree, with its ropelike contours looking like a face as shadows grew upon it, its draping, mossy leaves like Medussa’s hair. That’s much more orienting. I feel I’ve helped a reader get located in jungle with that. The sense of worry and fright, even doom, are carried pretty well in the imagery, as much as they are by “encroaching darkness.”

What did you come up with? As an announcement, so to speak, of a jungle evening is it clear and orienting? Does it invite and offer welcome with the grace of a refined host or hostess? I hope so. Let that be your standard. In your own writing, aim for the glossy perfection of those KoreanAir ads, for example, where the passengers all recline blissfully in seats like sleigh beds. Don’t make your readers soporific. But make them perfectly content in their setting.


Benjamin Obler is teaching the online class "Practice Makes Much Better" starting 7/8. He is the author of Javascotia from Penguin Books UK (2009). His short stories have appeared in The Slate, Qwerty, and The Evansville Review.