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Clarity versus RUE

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by BWFoster78, Aug 14, 2015.

  1. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    Two important principles for my writing:

    1. Seek clarity. If a reader doesn't understand the writing, the reader isn't going to be engaged by the writing.
    2. RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain). Overexplaining insults the reader's intelligence. Not a great way to win fans.

    In my mind, these two principles very much contradict each other. I just got some developmental comments back, and I'm trying to find the right balance between the two. I'd love your thoughts on a specific instance.


    I throw the acronym E-HHART out there in a short story. Very military thing to do, in my mind, so staying in my protagonist's head. Seems like him giving the full meaning of the acronym at that point would be overexplaining and out of the character's head.

    My editor says, "What the crap is an E-HHART?" Clearly, this situation has introduced a lack of clarity, though I give that the meaning later in the story.

    So, which is worse in this case: lack of clarity or overexplaining?

    I think I tend to do this kind of thing a lot. I'd rather throw stuff out there with the expectation that the reader is going to keep up than slow the pace with a lot of explanations.

    Thoughts in general?


  2. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Your editor sounds impatient.
    BWFoster78 likes this.
  3. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    One thing I liked about The West Wing is that they almost never explain an acronym or jargon but let the viewer work it out.
    If E-HHART is essential to the story then maybe you have to explain it.
    If it is a bit of colour and adds depth to a character's way of seeing the world, then I'd be tempted to let it run...
    BWFoster78 likes this.
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    It seems to me that you don't have to think in terms of a dichotomy, an either-or. You can introduce clarity without having to engage in straight-forward, lengthy exposition.

    I have no clue what "E-HHART" is...but let's assume it is a type of advanced mining machine. You don't have to expand the acronym into its lengthy full name (revealing the meaning of the letters) but can instead describe the E-HHART in action. So for instance the protag says, "The E-HHART extended its massive steel arms to either side, gripping the walls of the crevice, then began drilling downward. The drill was like some furious mechanical worm that grew with every foot it sank into the earth below, howling every time it reached a new layer of rock."

    Descriptive language can be used to build a compelling scene while also offering some clarity — without the need for boring exposition or a matter-of-fact lecture.
    BWFoster78 likes this.
  5. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I think that the context reveals what it is. The issue is what exactly it stands for.
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    It seems to me that if the editor is saying, "What the crap is an E-HHART?" then the context is what is not clear rather than the acronym. If your editor is actually asking specifically for the acronym to be spelled out, I might be wrong. How you handle clarifying the context would depend on what you want to do: either more descriptive language or maybe better dialogue amongst the characters, etc.

    I have a somewhat negative impression when characters speak in unclear jargon willy-nilly. I have a friend who writes that way sometimes, and I always have the impression that he's trying to display a character who is cool, suave, uber-knowledgeable about things (not feeling the need to explain), etc.

    I think it's true that characters take their own world for granted—we in our world can say IRS to each other without spelling it out, because we all know its meaning—but I'd hope that if we had some foreign companion tagging along, our conversation about taxation, audits, and so forth would make "IRS" clear for our friend. Otherwise he might still have to say, "What's IRS?" Same principal goes for writing, since readers are foreigners to our world.
  7. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I think that the writer absolutely has to define what the IRS is, either by context or directly. That's really not the issue at hand.

    The issue is timing.

    Is it okay to throw the big, bad IRS agent in as a threat in the first scene without elaboration, and then explain later the exact nature of the threat represented?

    That's the issue.
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Sure, in that case it would seem fine. But even in that case some sort of clarity is offered: The agent is someone with power, a threat; the protag is under duress; something needs resolved. So the agent is somewhat defined without having to be entirely defined, can be shadowy but is still a shadow rather than a complete enigma. If "IRS" is used at that early stage, it is also somewhat defined: a threat, a power, an organization or institution of some sort.

    So I suppose it depends on the use toward which you are putting things. Again, using E-HHART in a story may not require that its exact nature needs spelling out. Perhaps the point is to highlight relationships and general environment; e.g.,

    "Did you hear about Davis?"

    "No, what?"

    "Dumb bastard tried to operate the E-HHART on his own."

    "What? What made him do that?"

    "Who the hell knows. He ended up at the bottom of Thorzal Crevasse. It took them half a day to cut him out, once they got to him. Lucky to be alive, but he's already asking for extra compensation."

    "Ha! Of course he is."

    "Of course he is."​

    Later, perhaps more detail about the E-HHART would be useful in the story. Maybe HH stands for "Harrison Holdings" and some character named Harrison is the primary antagonist, not yet revealed, and the first speaker above has to operate an E-HHART alone in his fight against the man — and comments on the irony of both, the name of the machine and the fact that now he's the one operating it alone. But maybe no such thing happens in the novel, and the only purpose for mentioning E-HHART is to develop the character of the speakers and Davis, in which case no further description would be necessary and you can still show characters who don't feel the need to explain some things.
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2015
  9. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver


    Perhaps specifics are needed. Here's the initial mention:

    And here's the explanation later:

  10. Russ

    Russ Istar

    I agree with MP that your editor is being a tad impatient. I get the idea that it is some sort of official team to protect the populace. The rest I can wait for.
    DanJames and Trick like this.
  11. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    Yeah, I think specifically and theoretically my way works.

    I do think that some readers are impatient, but I don't think it's a good idea to give in to that impatience.

    Thanks for the comment! (I'm apparently out of "thanks" for the day :) )

  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I assume that the further context, what happens before the first passage above, makes clear that "the kids" are civilians in trouble. What may be less clear is the idea that E-HHART is specifically a unit to rescue civilians. Keeping them safe could mean a whole host of things. Arriving to do quick battle against a hostile force, i.e. becoming a barrier between civilians and attackers, could be its purpose, so E-HHART might simply be a quick-attack force. (Our own soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen go to war to "protect America," i.e., protect American Civilians, keep Americans safe. But they are not the National Guard and don't typically operate as rescue forces for our home populace. The "not keeping soldiers" safe idea could be that, yes, they know they put themselves in danger, specifically to protect Americans back home.) The lack of clarity may be a sort of ambiguity or vagueness, depending how you look at it.

    That said, this doesn't seem a big deal, and the editor might be a tad impatient. How long between these two passages? I'm also not sure what "Enhanced Hostile and Hero Assistance Response Team" means, once the reveal happens. It may simply mean that the team may be able to fill two offensive roles: As a quick-attack team on its own (Hostile) or as a quick response team that supports other fighters already in field by offering assistance (Hero). It's quite possible that more in your text, before and between these passages, already makes clear the meanings though?
  13. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I would focus on the question, "Is this distracting to the reader?" If it's not, then go with RUE. If it is then go with clarity.

    For example. Have you ever had a conversation with someone, and they keep dropping a person's name. Let's call them Bob. You don't know Bob, and the person talking knows you don't know him, but they talk in a way like you do.

    For me, when this happens, my attention to the conversation wanes, and all I can think about is "WHO THE HELL IS BOB?" And it's especially annoying when all the person had to do was quickly mention Bob's my uncle or he's just some random guy they met on the bus.
    Feo Takahari and BWFoster78 like this.
  14. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    I'm going to stand on the other side of the fence. I have no idea what E-HHART stands for and if I came across it once in a book without at least the full term it would drive me nuts.

    I'm also going to add that The West Wing drove me nuts as well, for similar reasons. Maybe I'm getting slower but I absolutely hate it when people speak at a hundred miles an hour on topics I don't know a lot about and expect me to keep up. Contrary to popular opinion I don't know who the president and all the political parties of every damned little country in the world are. And then if they really want to piss me off they'll have instant knowledge of every damned subject under the stars and instantlyunderstand what everyone else is prattling on about. The world is not filled with genius level people, and quite frankly I don't regard politicians and their lackies as likely to be an elite. In fact my thought would be that the first thing anyone with half a brain would decide is that they don't want to be in that game and leave.

    What you're describing is not a dichotomy. It's a balancing act. My rule of thumb would be that if you introduce an acronym, explain it the first time. You might be able to get away with IRS or KISS or the common ones. But for those that aren't so common don't let your readers sit there wondering what the hell you're talking about. In this case since E-HHART is something you made up so no reader save you will know what it means (I googled it just to check) it's definately not common.

    Alternatively dump the acronym altogether. Still not knowing what an E-HHART is lets pretend it's a gun. Now take the sentence "He shot him with the E-HHART gun."

    OK your readers now sitting there with some sort of idea that it's a gun. Is it a potatoe gun? A water pistol? A rifle? A laser? What does it do? Is it deadly? So many damned questions which the term can't tell me but which you're going to have to explain in the following sentences. Say "It burned a hole in his chest." Now I know as a reader that it's a laser or similar. All well and good. But then I'm going to ask why you didn't just call it a damned laser to begin with. It was so much simpler. And then I'm going to be pissed every time you go on to talk about this damned gun later on in the book because I still don't know what it stands for or why you don't just call it a damned laser and be done with it. Hell even a zap gun would be preferable term. (Thank you PKD).

    Cheers, Greg.
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  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I read the passages and wondered why it was necessary to give the acronym at all. The character could wonder why he signed up with this unit in the first place. Or just signed up, period. Or not bother with reference to organization, and he could wonder why he ever got into this line of work. Or, simply not have him regret anything at this point. There are any number of ways to re-phrase.

    In general, if an acronym is going to get used regularly, then find a way to spell it out at first. Or ask yourself if you really want to go with acronyms at all. Hitting the Shift key slows a feller down.
  16. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    The beginning of Final Fantasy XIII comes to mind. To me, it was pretty clear--the army wants to kill the monsters and any civilians who might have been infected by the monsters, and the militia wants to stop the army from hurting civilians. The problem was, they weren't called monsters, they were called fal'cie and l'cie, and the milita was called NORA, and I think the army had a couple different names depending on the branch, and it all turned into a mess of nouns that could only be interpreted through context clues. A complaint I saw over and over from fans of the series was that the game suffered from "proper noun syndrome," throwing out one proper noun after another without defining them.

    I think in most contexts, the different characters in the situation will have different terms that throw light on the situation. The army officers might call the monsters l'cie, while the grunts might call them "freaky monsters." The soldiers might refer to themselves by their official designations, while the milita might call them "army butchers hurting innocent people." Even with more technical stuff, a soldier might call his gun by its official make and model, while a civilian scavenging it off a corpse would call it "some kind of laser gun."
  17. Trick

    Trick Auror

    Absolutely and whole-heartedly agreed. That is more than enough context for me to keep reading without even the slightest hiccup. If you never explained it at all there is a slim chance I'd notice and be annoyed. Otherwise, leave it.

    Last edited: Aug 15, 2015
  18. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    This isn't what you asked for, but I can't help but wonder how you pronounce E-HHART? I'd probably read the HHART part in a way similar to heart or hard. The double-H trips me up a little, but it's probably not nearly as big a deal as the other issues.

    I too figured it was some kind of special forces unit from the excerpt in the earlier post. Before that, I had an image of some sort of mechanized walker, but I think that might have been triggered by something in another post.
  19. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver


    I'm pronouncing it e-heart.
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  20. DanJames

    DanJames Scribe

    This. I actually have a perfect example, if there are any anime fans they may be familiar with HUnter X Hunter. I only recently started watching it with a friend and at one point a character mentions in an inward monologue that he is a UMA Hunter. We both leaned forward and suspended ourselves off the edge of our seats, UMA had never been mentioned before so we were expecting some form of info dump.

    However, Hunter X Hunter's writing is better than that. The character only mentions they are a UMA hunter to themselves because UMA hunters are seemingly big deals in the verse, it was more of reminding themselves of who they are to justify their actions at that point (e.g. UMA Hunters are seemingly rare and fairly stronger than the average Hunter), but the character is, in a shocking twist, a complete coward.

    It isn't for about another 7-10 episodes we actually learn what an UMA hunter is through a news broadcast (SPOILERS - It's an Unidentified Mysterious Animal).

    Sorry, that was kind of long-winded way to get my point across, but basically that one term - UMA - became a solid talking point until we learned what it was, it actually lost a little bit of it's magic once we learned, as we were kind of hoping for something insane and completely unthinkable, however within the context it could've really ONLY be that.

    If you feel like something requires explanation then write the entire scene with that in mind, establishing a character out of the loop that can query these terms that a reader may not be familiar with (even just fabricate a character for that scene, although best to have them recur so as to mask their original purpose). I once wrote a story in school that require two pieces of information to be explained, it was terrible exposition looking back on it (hey, I was 13), however what I did was have one character out of the loop and another character who idolised the first one, and knew everything he needed to know. He gave this big info dump that technically worked because it served as characterising the second character as a know-it-all and an eager to please type. I then masked his purpose by having him continually try to explains things that didn't need explained, neither to the reader or the characters, and have him consistently interrupted when they didn't need to know what he had to say.

    But yea, tl;dr - your editor is impatient. :p
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