Clarity:

(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” Matthew Arnold

“No blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose. I speak, of course, of the ideal.” Eudora Welty

“Everything that can be thought of can be thought of clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

“When it comes to writing, simplicity is often your best ally.” Laurent Tirard, from Molière, the film

“You have to speak clearly and simply and purely in a language that a six-your-old child can understand; and yet have the meanings and the overtones of language, that the implications, that appeal to the highest intelligence.” Katherine Ann Porter

“I beg you, be logical in the design and structure of your work, in syntax . . . be a skillful builder, both in small things and in the whole . . . love words, as Flaubert did, exercise economy in your means, thrift in the use of words, precision and authenticity—then you will discover the secret of a wonderful thing: beautiful clarity.” Mikhail Kuzmin

“The most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity. The clearest diction is that based on current words; but that lacks dignity.” Aristotle

“A complex idea requires a simple eloquence in the telling.” Philip Gerard

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.” William Zinsser

“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. ‘Up’ in ‘free up’ shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.” William Zinsser

“Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.” William Zinsser

“There is enormous power in stating something simply and well.” Pat Conroy

“Originality begins in accuracy and accuracy requires precise expression.” Philip Gerard

“It is proper for the ordinary reader to absorb the meaning of a story or description as if the words were a transparent sheet of glass. But he can do so only because the writer has taken pains to choose and adjust them with care.” Jacques Barzun

“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify, simplify.” William Zinsser

“Simplify. Simplify.” Henry David Thoreau

“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” William Zinsser

“Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard or misapplied words with little or no meaning have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, they are but the covers of ignorance and hindrance of true knowledge.” John Locke

“This too to remember. If a man writes clearly enough any one can see if he fakes. If he mystifies to avoid a straight statement, which is very different from breaking so-called rules of syntax and grammar to make an effect which can be obtained in no other way, the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense. True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly. Mysticism implies a mystery and there are many mysteries; but incompetence is not one of them; nor is overwritten journalism made literature by the injection of a false epic quality. Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.” Ernest Hemingway

“Words are means of communication and must be used for their denotation. One of the beauties of a good literary style, as opposed to a dry synopsis, is that it combines clear denotation with the skillful use of connotation.” Ayn Rand

“An old literary bromide says that when you write about boring people, you, the writer, do not have to be boring. The same applies here: you cannot convey an incoherent emotion by means of incoherent writing.” Ayn Rand

“Euphemisms are for wimps. Invented in an attempt to avoid offending others or to pussyfoot around socially prickly subjects, they are the last words you should resort to if you’re trying to be clear, concrete, concise, and compassionate. Euphemism conceals reality rather than revealing it—which is, after all, what a writer should be doing.” Constance Hale

“I reject the very notion of synonyms: each word has its own meaning and is semantically irreplaceable.” Milan Kundera

“Gradually I came to feel as unwilling as he to let a sentence stand if the meaning was not as unambiguously visible as a grizzly bear in a brightly lit kitchen. I discovered what every good writer knows, that getting down one’s exact meaning helps one discover what one means.” John Gardner

“The more fantastic the action the more precise the writing and this is the way it ought to be.” Flannery O’Connor

“Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge. When the quality that the adverb indicates can be put in the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality the adjective indicates can be put in the noun itself (a growling voice = a growl), the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The fact is, a prose narrative isn’t going to be read aloud. It has to explain itself on the page, speak for itself, make itself ‘heard’ by the editor who decides to publish or not publish it, and by all its readers once it’s published.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The phrase ‘arch to the pavement’ achieves its effect through great economy and precision. [Spillane] could have said that the butts ‘fell in an arched line’ or merely ‘fell’; instead he selects one verb that describes exactly how it fell (it is a slightly manufactured verb, but legitimate in the context).” Ayn Rand

“Since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.” E.B. White

“And above all, he [Voltaire] is free from the cloudy, contour-blurring, overemotional rhetoric, equally destructive of clear thinking and pure feeling, which came to the fore in the authors of the Enlightenment during the second half of the [eighteenth] century and in the literature of the Revolution, which had a still more luxuriant growth in the nineteenth century through the influence of romanticism, and which has continued to produce its loathsome flowers down to our day.” Erich Auerbach

“Surprisingly often a difficult problem with a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam.” William Zinsser

“Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence. Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.” William Zinsser

“Clarity is what every editor owes to the reader. An editor should never allow something to get into print that he doesn’t understand. If he doesn’t understand it, at least one other person won’t, and that’s one too many.” William Zinsser

“Allow your most rigorous teacher to be a clear, well-written page.” Marie Arana

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