March 26, 2013

Can You Hear Me Now?

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

For weeks I had been looking forward to hearing a noted author and public speaker who gave a presentation near me this weekend.  From his books and the CDs I'd heard, I knew it was going to be an inspiring and entertaining talk.

My hopes remained high until I sat down and remembered how horrible the echo is in this particular venue.  It's a beautiful, ornate setting, appealing to the eye, but a portion of what they spent on decorating should have been invested in decent acoustic consultation.  Every word bounced around the hall and fought with itself, and I'd be surprised if the audience was able to discern more than half of what was said.  (The author, BTW, gave an excellent presentation, from the parts I could hear.)

Sitting through that muddled wash of indistinctness, my mind tended to wander, and I pondered how great words can all be in vain if something gets in the way.  Anything that distracts from the clarity of the message is a curse to communication.

In our writing, we can lose the reader in countless ways.  To name but a few:

  • Long stretches of dialogue that doesn't occasionally inject who's saying what
  • Too many details that aren't relevant to the story
  • Too many accessory characters to keep up with
  • Names of characters that are similar, inviting confusion
  • Pet phrases or inside jokes that make the reader say, "Huh?"

There's also the whole issue of typos and improper punctuation.  It's amazing how the same sentence can take on different meanings without properly-placed punctuation. One of my favorite examples is:
  • A woman without her man is nothing.
  • A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Our proofreaders at the magazine (who are among my favorite people on the planet) are all about clarity.  A missing comma here, an awkwardly-worded phrase there, are the kind of things they lose sleep over, because these little grammatical gaffes take away from cogent communication.

They might even question my use of the word "cogent" if "clear" would say the same thing with less bluster. "Bluster" might even be suspect.

In the editing process, sometimes classical rules clash and debates result, but whenever they do, the judgment is always in favor of clarity; whatever conveys most accurately.

You know exactly what you meant to say, so you may not spot the impediments to communication that a good editor will notice.  Don't skip that important insurance policy.  And if you're ever asked to give a speech in a very big room, I encourage you to check out the acoustics before you say yes.

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