Category Archives: clarity

How many names are too many names?

When you start to write a novel or a short story, how many characters should you introduce in the first scene?

I picked up the novel of a new-to-me but best-selling author tonight and started reading.  On the first page (really a half page), five characters were introduced along with their relationships to each other.  On the second page, four more people were named and their relationships.  On the third page, one more.  Ten names and a web of who knows how many relationships in two and a half pages of text.  None of them were developed enough to know more than “he’s a detective,” “she’s an au pair,” “she’s giving the party” and “he’s got a crush on the au pair.”

A bit into the second page I was flipping back to the first page to remind myself  who was who.  Then, befuddled, I pulled out a piece of paper and drew family tree-like relationships to keep characters straight.

Should this be necessary?  How many names are too many names?

I have never read any guidance on this topic.  Yet a maximum number of names is an important criterion for me to use to determine if I will keep reading.  If I find myself needing to draw family trees, I ask myself, “Is this worth reading?”  “No,” I almost always decide.  If an author can’t figure out how to introduce characters without confusing me, then the author can’t be that good.  I put the book back on the shelf and move on.

In college I needed to read Anna Karenina in English 101.  At the front of my translation was a list of characters which at first intimidated me.  But I rarely  consulted it.  Tolstoy had a way of introducing characters without overloading my short-term memory.  For the heck of it, I just now checked to count how many characters Tolstoy introduced by name in that novel’s first scene (about two pages).  The answer–three:  Stiva, his wife, Dolly, and one man named as part of a silly dream, a man whose name we realize immediately is not important.  Other people’s roles are mentioned—a French governess, an English governess, a housekeeper, a cook, a kitchen-maid, a coachman, the children—but they are not named.  A reader needs to keep track of only two.  And one of those two we are learning about intimately since those pages are told from his point of view.

How many names are too many names?  I don’t know.  But when I am confused by the third page, that is too many names.

Savoring great sentences

Good writers try to make their sentence structure invisible so that we readers are 100% engrossed in the meaning of the writing without being distracted by the grammar.  But when I read really good writing, I go back to analyze why it seems so effortless, so perfect.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Sometimes I find incredible sentences.  Here is one of my favorite cumulative sentences, jotted down many years ago, its source now unknown to me.

“He stood at the top of the stairs and watched me, I waiting for him to call me up, he hesitating to come down, his lips nervous with the suggestion of a smile, mine asking whether the smile meant come, or go away.”

Isn’t that a great sentence?  It contains 43 words.  Usually 43-word sentences are hard to follow unless they are a list.  But this simple sentence is easy to follow.  Why?

It starts with an independent clause using all single-syllable words:  a subject (he) and two verbs (stood and watched).  Next are two phrases with parallel ideas about the two people (I and he) expressed in parallel grammar (I waiting, he hesitating).  The last two lines are also parallel ideas expressed in similar ways.  The first starts with “his lips,” and the second starts with the pronoun, “mine,” referring to her lips.

Adding to the clarity of this long sentence are the organic transitions.  The first line introduces the two people, “he” and “me”; the second line uses “I,” “him” and “me”; the third uses “he”; the fourth uses “his”; and the fifth uses “mine.”

Also adding to the sentence’s goodness is the use of “up” and “down” to create a visual image of the situation.  In the independent clause we learn a male is at the top of the stairs; in the next phrase we learn that another person is waiting to be called up by him; in the next line the word “down” is used.

Another organic transition is his “lips” and his “smile”; in the last line the word “smile” is repeated.

And finally, there are the last three words.  “Or go away” comes as a surprise.  Wait!  Did I understand this right? the reader asks, going back and re-evaluating what the sentence might really mean.  You have been bewitched by a master writer.

Are you a sentence saver?  If so, you must be a writer.

What parents want writing teachers / tutors to teach

When parents ask for writing help for their children, what kind of help do they want?Child writing

  • Grammar?
  • Vocabulary?
  • Sentence structures?
  • Organizing?
  • Transitions?
  • Introductions and hooks?
  • Conclusions?
  • Spelling?
  • Cursive handwriting?
  • Details?
  • Revising?
  • Particular types of writing (paragraphs? essays? book reports? short answer responses? long answer responses? summaries?)
  • Narrative elements (character development? plot? setting? foreshadowing?  point of view? conflict? dialog? voice? suspense?)
  • Verb tenses?
  • Paraphrasing?
  • Clarity?
  • Dialog?
  • Figures of speech?

Most parents have no idea so many elements combine to create good writing.  When they see a list like this, they are taken aback.

That is why it is important for parents and teachers to agree on what students should learn at various ages.  If a parent thinks the student should be perfecting grammar, but the teacher instead focuses on organization of information, the parent will not be happy.  Or if a parent thinks a student should be using a great piece of rhetoric as a model, but the teacher wants the student to develop his own way of expression, again the parent will be dissatisfied.

Only when a parent is aware of all that a student is expected to learn can the parent and teacher have a meaningful conversation about how to improve a student’s writing.

Use adult vocabulary for academic words

I was working with a high school freshman writing an essay.  He was baffled by his teacher’s directions to write a chicken foot and buckets.  So was I.  There was a drawing of a horizontal line with three diagonal “toes” going out from the end of the horizontal line.  This was the chicken foot.  There was another drawing of four cans with a space for a label at the top of each one.  These were the buckets.  But there was no identification of what these terms or diagrams meant.

Emails back and forth solved the problem.  The chicken foot was the thesis.  The horizontal line was the opinion and the three toes were the supporting ideas backing up the thesis.  The buckets were the details for each of the chicken’s toes, with an extra one  in case.

The more I thought about these terms, though, the more annoyed I became.  Why not use the terminology that the student will need to use in other high school English classes and in college classes?  Why not call a thesis a thesis and its supporting topic sentences supporting topic sentences?  Why not call evidence “evidence” or “citations”?

What my student’s teacher is doing is what so many parents do for babies learning to talk.  The parents say “night-night” instead of “sleep” or “bye-bye” instead of “we’re leaving.” But eventually the children need to learn the proper names for “sleep” and “leaving.”  Why introduce “baby” versions of the words?  Isn’t “sleep” just as easy to understand as “night-night”?

I know the teacher is well meaning.  And I know she explained “chicken foot” and “buckets” during class.  But my student didn’t understand, and looking up those words on the teacher handout didn’t help.  If the teacher had used the word “thesis,” he could have looked that word up and found plenty of explanation.  If she had used the words “topic sentences” or “supporting topic sentences,” he could have found those words and their meanings online.  If she had used the words “evidence” or “citations,” my student could have figured out what they meant and what he was expected to do.

Children eventually need to learn proper vocabulary for ideas, whether it is “identify” or “cite.”  Babying their vocabulary does no service to children; rather it confuses them and stalls their acquisition of adult vocabulary.

Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.

Should you name with different words?

Suppose you are writing about Mae babysitting.  Should you write:

Mae looked at the little boy.  This experienced babysitter wondered when she should put the child to bed.  The tired girl wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should the young woman do that?

Or should you write

Mae looked at the little boy.  She wondered when she should put the child to bed.  She wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should she do that?

Writing experts say to write the second way.  Why?

Normally, when we speak, at the second mention of a person, we substitute a pronoun for the person’s name.  If we use another way to describe or name the person, the reader thinks we are talking about a new person.  That is because we are so used to hearing a pronoun used as a second reference.

What does the first example add that the second doesn’t?  “Experienced babysitter,” “tired girl,” and “young woman.”  Do those descriptors add anything important to the meaning of the paragraph, namely, whether Mae should put the little boy to bed?  Not really.  Do they distract the reader from the real meaning of the paragraph?  Yes.

At second reference, use a pronoun.  At third reference, use a pronoun.  If other people are involved, especially another person of the same gender, use the persons’ names to avoid confusion.  Occasionally repeat the original person’s name to remind the reader who you are writing about, but most of the time, use pronouns for subsequent references.  If you must use a noun, use the most generic noun–girl, woman–at second or third reference.

Sometimes the simplest, least “clever” way is the best.

Do you write in the classical style?

Do you write as if you are talking to someone, not preaching, not teaching, not arguing, but rather having a conversation?

Do you treat that someone as if he or she is your equal, except that you have knowledge which your friend lacks?  For example, do you write much like Elizabeth Bennett speaks to her sister, Jane, in Pride and Prejudice?

Do you simplify difficult concepts by making comparisons to everyday concepts, much like a teacher lining up a flashlight, an apple and a grape to explain an eclipse to children?

Is your meaning clear during the first read without a need to reread?

Do you let facts do the persuading, much like the charges against King George III did in the Declaration of Independence?

Is all the work of your writing hidden so that only the finished product shows, much like the elegant dinners at Downton Abby?

Do you exploit the natural structure of English sentences and paragraphs, putting the stress on the last word or phrase, much like Robert Frost in his poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Are the facts which you present verifiable, much like a scientific experiment which can be replicated to achieve the same result, or like spectators who can be interviewed about what they saw and heard?

Do you use the perfect word or analogy, believing that with a bit of work you can find it?

Is your writing unpredictable, delighting with clever insights?

Is the structure of your writing inconspicuous, allowing the truth of your ideas to shine, much like the stitching of a beautiful garment?

Classical style is one of many writing styles (romantic, oratorical, and practical, among others).  Its roots date to ancient Greece and to 17th century France.  It has influenced American writers like Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain but has not dominated English writing the way it has dominated French writing.

If you want to know more abut the classic style, read Clear and Simple as the truth by F. Thomas and M. Turner, Princeton University Press, 1994.  Most interesting is a section called “The Museum” which quotes varied sources to show what classical style is and is not.