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There is no free ride for a sentence

So says Charlotte Manion, the expert in writing for business. We met at a Guardian Masterclass and had one of those wonderful conversations in which we went from thinking we worked in completely different fields to realising that we share a passion.

When I told Charlotte that I was a novelist, she said, “Oh, I do the opposite of what you do – I teach people to use clear, simple sentences.” The inference being that, as a fiction writer, I use long, embroidered, flowery sentences; that whereas she clarifies, I obscure. I don’t blame her for this misconception. For years I filled my sentences with unnecessary words thinking that it would make my writing sound more beautiful and literary. I had to detox my sentences to make them clear, simple and precise – and I’m still learning.

When I told Charlotte that I spend my days wrangling over the right word and cutting and reshaping my sentences and thinking about how my stories can be written in the clearest, most powerful way possible, she understood that we’re walking side by side, holding the same banner that reads: Think of your readers: write well. 

Listening to Charlotte and the extraordinary work that she does, I realised that we novelists can learn a great deal from experts like her. Too many school children are brought up with the mistaken belief that using adverbs and adjectives and ‘descriptive language’ (is not all language descriptive?) makes their stories strong.  In fact, it’s the verbs and nouns that do the work. It’s clarity and simplicity that touches readers.

Creative writers have just as much of a duty to write clearly and simply as non-fiction writers. As long ago as 1946, George Orwell, a journalist and novelist who understood that writing well was as important to all writers, made his case in his seminal essay, The Politics of The English Language.  

So, back to Charlotte’s top tip:

“There is no free ride for a sentence. To be clear every word must work hard to provide comprehension.”

In other words, we have to put our words on trial. If they’re not pulling their weight in a sentence, they should go.

Charlotte gives a common example from the world of business:

Have you ever written: “Please do not hesitate to contact me” instead of, “Please contact me?” This is seven words reduced to three and easier to understand too.

 

Challenge: every time you write a sentence today, think about how you can reduce the number of words to make your thought clearer and more powerful. 

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Charlotte Mannion of Quick Learn is a coach and facilitator and loves helping people to communicate better in both their writing and verbal communications. Look out for an upcoming interview with Charlotte.