Notes on Craft: On Language and Clarity
by Olakunle Ologunro
If this is your first time reading this letter, you can flashback to the previous letters in the series here.
The letter for this week (or month, seeing how very irregular and inconsistent I am 🥴) is about language and clarity, and how these two things work to improve the quality of your writing.
In my final year of university, I had the privilege of reading the works of some students at other levels. Many of them were freshers trying their hands at prose writing so they could hone their skills. Some of the stories had potential, but there was a major barrier preventing this potential from shining through. That barrier was language.
Language, to me, is the vehicle a story travels in. It is the microphone that amplifies the story, the colour that animates everything. And this is why it is important for you to get it right. The use of language in the freshers’ stories came from a place to impress– at least that was what it read like to me. They used too many ‘big’ words, a lot of which took up space but added nothing to the story as a whole. They were clunky, mismatched, and useless, and instead of displaying their mastery of language, it revealed their tumultuous relationship with language.
Simplicity and clarity is a sign of mastery in language. It shows that you are able to communicate effectively, express yourself in the story and give your characters room to do the same. This is what I strive for in my stories, what I think you as a writer should strive for too. Each time I sit down to write, I wonder, “How best can I tell this story?” I make myself the reader because I believe that if I am able to understand and communicate my intentions in the story, I have solved a major problem.
“Anyone who wants to become a writer should be vigorous, direct, simple, and lucid.” That’s a quote from Henry Watson Fowler. But then, to do this, what are the basics?
First of all, don’t use ‘big words’ where a simple one will do. Buy instead of purchase. That is, in a situation where a simpler word or sentence can achieve the desired effect, choose it. Yes, the big word looks fancy, interesting, but will it add to the story’s flow or take away from it? That’s one thing to always consider.
Another thing to keep in mind is that clarity also matters in the story before anything. Language can be as clear as day, but if the story itself is unclear, only little can be done to salvage it.
Do not attempt to impress a perceived ‘judge’ because you assume that a certain type of writing is not fancy enough for them. Don’t assume to know what they will like or dislike. You cannot know, really. So, when you enter for a competition or simply write to submit it, do not choose intentionally complex vocabulary. Do not be deliberately unclear, unless that is what you are going for. Simply tell the story that feels like you. Let it be in a language you are familiar with.
Read. This cannot be overemphasized. What stories do you like? What strikes you in their use of language? Study the people who have gone before you. It is one of the best ways to learn.
As I write this, “Conference” by Naja Marie Aidt is the story that comes to my mind. The simplicity was what struck me on my first encounter with it. How the language worked to simplify the prose rather than complicate it. Such a level of simplicity is what I aspire to and what I hope to transcend. I think you should do the same. Language can comfort, enrage, arouse, disgust, and do many things to the reader. But only when it is applied simply.
I’ll end with this paragraph from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s conversation with Zadie Smith on writing, relationship, etc.
“Clarity’s important to me. I forget who said that ‘Prose should be as clear as a windowpane.’ I’m very much in that school, and it’s the kind of fiction I like to read. The kind of writing that I like to read is writing that is clear. I think it’s very easy to confuse something that’s badly written as something that’s somehow deep. If something is incomprehensible and the sentences are bad, we’re supposed to say, ‘Oh that’s really deep.’ It’s not the kind of fiction I like to read, so I guess maybe when I’m editing I’m thinking about that. I’m thinking that the sentences I really admire are sentences that are lucid.”
Listen to the full podcast here.
What are you reading? More importantly, what are you writing? How is it coming along?
For me, I reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it. Over the coming weeks, I’ll share each letter with you.
Don’t stop writing.
All my love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.