How to Stop Your Readers from Constantly Shifting Gears

“I never leave a sentence or paragraph until I’m satisfied with it.” —Clifford Geertz

by Alvimann
by Alvimann

Have you reread paragraphs to understand what they said?

Most authors write confusing paragraphs in their drafts. If left in books, these paragraphs cause readers to shift into Reverse. Some shifts are small, and readers accept them. But when readers shift gears often, they become weary and might put the book down. Possibly not knowing why.

Can you spot the shifts in these sentences and paragraphs?

Example 1

  • Janice cried all day when she read the letter of biting words from Mark.

Gear shift

  • Why did Janice cry all day? Shift. Oh, because of Mark’s biting words.

Better Sentence

  • When Janice read Mark’s biting words in his letter, she cried all day. (stimulus then reaction – flows without a hitch)

Example 2

  • Image courtesy of Daniel St.Pierre at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
    Image courtesy of Daniel St.Pierre at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

    The waiters hoped the customers wouldn’t order dessert. They’d heard that Karl wouldn’t deliver his famous cream puffs by lunchtime. Karl had called the maître d’ and said he’d lost his van keys. Unfortunately, all customers streamed to the ice cream shop after they finished their lunches and ordered cream puffs.

Gear shift

  • The sentences are ordered so reactions come before their stimuli. Having to mentally reorder stimuli and reactions to capture the picture is tiring.

Better Paragraph

  • The maître d’ informed the waiters Karl had lost his van keys. None of Karl’s famous cream puffs would be available for the lunch crowd. The waiters hoped the customers wouldn’t order dessert. Unfortunately, all the customers finished their lunches and ordered cream puffs. When they learned they’d enjoy none, they streamed to the ice cream shop.
by cohdra
by cohdra

Example 3

  • Sonya hid Angela’s birthday presents. She hoped she’d see her expression.

Gear shift

  • I assume the first “she” is Sonya. But did Sonya hope to see Angela’s hurt expression? Or did Sonya hope Angela would see her smug expression?

Better Paragraph

  • Sonya hid Angela’s birthday presents. Hopefully, Angela would believe her friends had forgotten her on her birthday. Sonya pictured Angela turning to her and seeing her smug expression. (context and names replacing pronouns keep the who-did-what flowing)

Example 4

 

by mensatic
by mensatic

•  Snatching the flower from his lapel, she leaped onto the trolley.

Gear shift

•  How did she snatch the flower while she leaped onto the trolley?

Better Sentence

•  She snatched the flower from his lapel and leaped onto the trolley. (“and” is sufficient to show the latter action followed the first)

by mrmac04
by mrmac04

Example 5

  • Edgar cut the vines and carried them to Alice, whose blond ringlets cascaded down each side of her lovely face. He wound them around her slim waist.

Gear shift

  • Did Edgar wind Alice’s ringlets or the vines around her waist?

Better Paragraph

  • Edgar cut the vines and carried them to Alice, whose blond ringlets cascaded down each side of her lovely face. He wound the vines around her waist. (knowing what pronouns refer to keeps the story flowing)

These writing problems cause readers to reread paragraphs to understand them. Click to tweet.

What writing problems cause you to shift gears while reading?

3 Tips to Edit Your Writing to Avoid a Reader’s “Huh?”

“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”  —Mark Twain

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We know exactly what we mean when we write each sentence of our story. We’re surprised when our critique partner or editor doesn’t.

Tweetable

  • Does your editor often mark your work with “vague,” “awkward,” or “huh?”? click to tweet

Here are 3 tips that will improve the clearness of your writing.

Tip 1. Huh? That Couldn’t Happen.

When we put phrases in the wrong place or leave out words we can say something that’s impossible.

by mensatic
by mensatic

Example: He’d forgotten to tell Alice he’d seen three wild turkeys playing golf the other day.

Turkeys playing golf? Huh?

Be careful in your rewrite or you may create a new problem. For example: He’d forgotten to tell Alice while playing golf the other day he’d seen three wild turkeys.

Golf-hating Alice played golf with him? Huh?

Better Rewrite: Earlier today, he’d forgotten to tell Alice he’d seen three wild turkeys on the golf course the other day.

Watch out for impossible actions in your writing.

Tip 2. Huh? What does “it” or “that” or “her/him” refer to?

Sometimes we use “it” or “that” or a pronoun that could refer to more than one thing or person.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Example: She gaped. Maude had told Alex every detail about her past. Maude’s blabbermouth would someday get her in trouble. That hurt her now.

Huh? What hurt? Maude’s gossip, Maude’s blabbermouth, or Maude’s ending up in trouble? Whose past was it? [She]’s or Maude’s? And Maude’s blabbermouth would get whom in trouble? [She] or Maude? That hurt whom? [She] or maybe Maude through a tarnished reputation?

Better Rewrite: Amy gaped. Maude had told Alex every detail about Amy’s past. Maude’s blabbermouth would someday get Maude in trouble. Now, Maude’s gossip had destroyed Amy’s chances to marry Alex.

A lot of names. But the reader shouldn’t be confused now. We could revamp the paragraph to cut down some of the names.

Tweetable

  • Watch out for the vague “it,” “that,” or pronoun in your writing. click to tweet

Tip 3. Huh? What did that sentence say?

We pack in several pieces of information and end up with a convoluted sentence.

Example: By reaching across the cement wall, Ziggy grabbed the Tiki torch Mom had put there with the hand she’d burned in last night’s fire lighting up the area with it to expose thieves climbing over it, snagging her sweater in the process.

karizbobariz
karizbobariz

Huh? Who had the burned hand? And did the Tiki torch or the fire light up the area to expose thieves? Did thieves climb over the wall, the fire, or the Tiki torch? Who snagged her sweater?

Better Rewrite: Ziggy eyed the Tiki torch Mom had put near the wall to expose thieves entering the yard. She reached the hand she’d burned in last night’s fire across the cement wall and grabbed the torch, snagging her sweater in the process.

Tweetable

  • Watch out for convoluted, awkward sentences in your writing. click to tweet

What other tips do you have to help writers keep their writing clear?