One Key to Better Writing Is Hiding Right in Front of You

Todd Brison
Image purchased by author

Real writers don’t care about being seen. They care about being understood. That means each sentence should be impossible to misunderstand. If I understand you, I will share your ideas or shame them. If I can’t understand you, I will quit reading and find a snack.

The quickest path to being understood is through nouns and verbs.

The dog ran.
The man stood.
The bagel beckoned.

You know what each of these sentences means. Even though you know a bagel cannot actually beckon, the simple noun and verb help you understand that I am planning to reward myself with a scrumptious treat soon.

When sentences get more complex, though, the nouns give us fits. Imagine having to read nightmarish passages like this:

“The man stood by the man’s house in the rain. The dog ran past the man, and the man yelled at the dog. The man was mad because the dog had taken the bagel from the man.”

Those nouns make the sentence less clear, not more. Keep this up for long, and the reader will stop reading the writer’s words and walk away from the reader’s computer screen.

Luckily, there is a part of speech you can deploy to keep sentences clear, leaving you time to get more bagels.

The mighty pronoun.

Pronouns take the place of nouns or noun phrases. We don’t have to use the word “man” 12 times in a sentence. We can swap it out for the briefer “he.” Pronouns sound simple on the surface. They aren’t always.

A pronoun only works if:

  1. The noun being replaced has been mentioned earlier, AND
  2. It is impossible to misunderstand which noun is being replaced

If I say “It ran. He stood. It beckoned,” you wonder what the “its” and “he” stands for. You may assume I mean dog, man, and bagel respectively, but you don’t know, do you? That means there is room for misunderstanding, which means I have failed as a writer.

Dogs, men, and bagels are easy to flip for pronouns. However, when you dive into the abstract (as many of us daydreaming, woods-wandering writers are wont to do), pronouns can become a source of confusion for the reader.

This is where many self-taught writers go wrong.

Take this sentence for example. I’ve put relevant pronouns in bold:

“If I focused my conversations with this inner being around connecting with the feelings I wanted, I realised this would be worthwhile. It was only about raising a frequency.”

We’re going to give the word “this” a pass for now. That’s a demonstrative pronoun referring to the omitted previous paragraph. Our confusion comes in the second sentence.

It was only about raising a frequency.”

What was only about raising a frequency? Moving forward? The conversations? “This?”

We have guesses. But we don’t know.

Let’s look at another example, pronouns in bold:

“From the person who is just starting to understand their gifts and passions to the highest performing executive or creator, it’s all about mindset.”

“Their” is fine here. It’s a possessive pronoun that refers to “the person.” We are lost, again, at the word “it.”

What is all about the mindset?

The author has a few choices. He can fiddle around with this sentence, making sure we have an obvious noun before the pronoun. Or, he can simply go back to our beloved nouns and verbs.

“From the person who is just starting to understand gifts and passions to the highest performing executive or creator, mindset matters most.

This is a powerful end to the sentence. More importantly, you cannot misunderstand its meaning.

Usually, poor pronoun use is a sign of one-draft writing. Writers crank through content and don’t give themselves the time to think: “is this sentence impossible to misunderstand?”

You don’t have that excuse anymore.

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