“Well,” the writer says, the equivalent of a shoulder shrug in their tone, “I know what this means and I like it, so we’re keeping it.”
Externally, the editor gives an understanding smile. Internally, the editor puts her head in her hands and screams.
Sessions like these happen all the time between writers and editors when it comes to getting those crucial rough drafts ready for publishing—though perhaps not quite as dramatically. Still, there are always hurdles to overcome, particularly when it comes to ensuring a writer’s thoughts are understandable to his or her readers.
Sometimes, a writer will need to change or completely rewrite a line or even a whole section that he thinks is perfect because readers could easily get confused or lost by the ambiguous meanings therein. Any worthwhile writer knows that it’s important to keep readers in the same compartment as them on the thought train; otherwise, readers will come to stops the writer never meant or, worse, will disembark from the train entirely.
Naturally, the writer has the final say in what changes and what stays the same, and if the editor still wants the piece published, then they have to respect the writer’s decision or reject the work entirely. But an editor is only supposed to be there to guide the writer, not ghostwrite for them. Here at CYC, it goes against our Editor’s Creed to deliberately and knowingly strip an author’s voice and vision from their writing and replace it with our own.
Nevertheless, what happens when the writer and editor disagree on what readers can understand and what they can’t? Is the writer correct in assuming their own intelligibility, or are they being too overconfident? Above all, why is it so important to maintain clarity of content?
Let’s start with that last point first.
Be Mindful of Your Writing
Many writers view advice like “be more clear with this point” as nitpicking and being overly cautious. Why should they have to “dumb down” their ideas just because some vague, random reader might struggle to understand them?
What they fail to realize is that their editor is the one who pointed out a potentially ambiguous bit of writing, and editors in general are pretty intelligent people. They have to be. They dissect words in all their forms (syntax, semantics, etc.), examine mechanics, and understand the meanings behind the words themselves as a whole, while simultaneously explaining any editorial changes to the writer. And editors have to make sure their explanations are clear in order to do that effectively.
For that reason, good editors do not harp on clarity for clarity’s sake, but because the phrases, sentences, or sometimes entire sections are, in fact, notably confusing.
Think about it — if your editor is confused, then you have a problem because, more than likely, your general reader will be, too.
Now, obviously your ideas are brilliant, and you don’t want to stifle them. You want to share them. However, if you want your ideas to reach as many people in your audience as possible, you will have to make sure that your writing also appeals to as many people as possible.
Does that mean you can’t use complicated terms anymore? Of course not! It just means you need to explain them in such a way that anyone with an 8th grade reading level can comprehend them, and that means being nice to your readers, because most of them do read at an 8th grade level.
If you fail to do so because you’re determined to write with jargoned prose, over-complicated explanations, or just because “it makes sense in your head,” then you’re going to see your readership drop dramatically—or worse, you’ll never have much of a readership to begin with.
In addition to mass audience appeal, you also need to be sure your points make sense for your own reputation’s sake. Anyone who’s ever witnessed or taken part in an argument over the internet can tell you how easy it is to be misunderstood or to have one’s words twisted to mean something else entirely.
The same can occur with online content if you’re not careful to say exactly what you mean and mean what you say.
Like internet arguments, you won’t come out the winner if your writing is too convoluted; that’s just inviting people to say mean things about your intelligence.
Battle of the Egos
(This next part will sound super cool if you listen to this song while you read.)
By this point, your editor has explained her arguments in favor of more rewrites, but you as the writer still won’t budge. You still think your writing makes perfect sense and that she’s crazy. Where does your impulse to push back come from, and how do you work around it moving forward?
First, you have to determine what kind of writer you are. More than likely, you are either being prideful—your ego resistant to change because you don’t believe that you can be wrong with your background and expertise—or you’re feeling insecure about your writing and/or argument, and are refusing advice as a defense mechanism.
Fortunately, with enough patience and carefully spoken words, there are ways you and your editor can come to a compromise.
If you’re an egoist writer (I know, ego can be a tough pill to swallow. Even here at CYC, Elisa sometimes throws a mini-tantrum when one of our editors justifiably questions her posts. Writers, man…) an editor will need to be firm and explicitly honest to convince you to make any changes.
Let their logic find a common ground with your passion. They may back up their arguments with facts and clear examples of other excerpts from your writing. Ask your editor for guidance and solutions to help you with the rewrite process if you don’t know how to proceed.
Remember: your editor only wants to bring out the best in you. They may be dishing out some tough love to make you a better writer.
Above all, try to be patient. You may hear your editor explain herself over and over again and have to do the same yourself until you both understand each other. In the end, when your piece is successful and you’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on it, you’ll be thankful that your editor was so adamant about those rewrites and that you put in the extra effort.
If you are feeling a bit insecure about your writing, look to your editor for simultaneous honesty and encouragement. You may be resisting change because you’re worried about losing your voice or making mistakes—either through your own fault or from your editor’s guidance.
Always work with your editor to preserve your writer’s voice for any rewrites and be willing to change what you need to (so long as meaning stays clear). Also, ask your editor to reaffirm the writing’s meanings, so that you know that they understand what you’re trying to say and are making changes to reflect that understanding for future readers.
Remember, you started working with this editor because you were confident with their editing abilities. Trust them and they will extend their own trust to your improved writing. Let them build you up and reaffirm their intentions to help you, not hurt you.
I Find Your Lack of Clarity Disturbing
It’s super easy for us all to get trapped in our own heads and not remember what we’ve shared with our readers and what we haven’t.
Since I’ve already made a Star Wars reference with the song above, I’ll use the film series as an example. Many people have arguments as to why the original trilogy did so much better with its storytelling than the prequel trilogy did. I like to argue that it was because George Lucas was too close to the source material, being its creator, to explain himself efficiently.
He single-handedly directed and wrote the screenplays for Episodes I, II, and III with very little outside assistance, whereas Episodes IV, V, and VI either had different directors and/or other screenplay writers besides Lucas.
Well, in truth, he did write and direct Episode IV by himself, but let’s be honest: the story was almost as new to Lucas as it was to all of us at that time. There wasn’t much to mess up yet, poor guy.
Whether it’s a question of the necessity for Episode I, the awkward romance between Padme and Anakin (made even more strange because there was a young, hot Obi-Wan standing right there), or even the explanations for Anakin’s fall to the dark side, Lucas fell short in many areas. He knew what he was trying to say, but the vast majority of moviegoers definitely did not, and now those problems with clarity are part of both his and the Star Wars legacy.
(But on that note, I’m still a proud member of the Prequel Defense Squad, and I will fight you over some choice words about the prequels. So don’t fight me. Enjoy—or rage—at this “Jar Jar Binks Is a Sith Lord” fan theory, go watch The Clone Wars on Netflix, and leave me be.)
With that, I leave you with some words of wisdom: always remember that your readers aren’t mind readers. All they have is your words on a page and none of the context behind it. They only see what you’ve been willing to explain thus far.
So writers and editors alike, I ask that you both be patient with each other. See moments of misunderstanding as evidence of how much you both care about the writing, and work together to eliminate any confusing parts. You both have the same goal: to get the best content possible out there for the world to see.