Best of the Blog: Avoiding Ambiguity

Writing, fiction or nonfiction, should be fluid, clean, and precise. It shouldn’t dawdle around with little sub-points that don’t serve the true purpose. Everything you write into your novel should be delivered with purpose. Not only should the writing have purpose, it should be clear to the writer that what you’re writing on has purpose.

That’s probably the biggest problem most people have with writing: taking one’s thoughts and expressing them so fluidly and clearly can be quite the challenge. People who have trouble articulating and ordering their own thoughts have especial trouble with this: if you don’t know what you’re thinking, how can you tell what you’re thinking to someone else and have them comprehend fully?

Enter one of our big problems: ambiguity. Ambiguous means either that a term has one or two meanings or is unclear. Of course, if a terms has more than one meaning, it certainly will be unclear. There are many words in the English language that are unclear, but some especially so given the context.

Most ambiguous problems come from one of three instances: either the ambiguity is formed by one’s perspective, the ambiguity is formed by one’s ignorance, or the ambiguity is formed by poor quality of writing. It doesn’t matter where the problem comes from: if it’s there, it’s there.

The ambiguity that comes from a inclusive perspective is not one you can help very much or even fully avoid. “Swatted” in gaming circles means to have the cops called on you on a false charge while you’re streaming. If this was the primary idea your reader had in his or her mind upon reading your book and they happened upon the sentence “and his mom swatted him on the rump” they might be confused. This is an obscure example, but you get my point: you can’t account for every reader out there. Some ambiguity is formed by perspective.

There’s little you can do to change this. Other than avoiding ultra-inclusive words that are extremely cliché, you could try getting a second opinion on a certain phrase or word. Using the most general sense of a word is your safest bet, although there will be people who will misunderstand you no matter what word you use.

The ambiguity that is born out of ignorance you can’t help very much either. This is similar to how your character might make a quirky inside joke but since the reader wasn’t paying attention to the previous part where this joke draws from, it flies right over their heads. The inside joke becomes more like a snub or insult.

This also can occur when the reader is just too illiterate to realize either the more general meaning of a word or a more obscure one. There are some things you just simply can’t help, either than using the general meaning of the word in question. I’d advise doing so, but beyond that, who knows what might happen.

Ambiguity that springs from poor writing is probably the most common. Reading is easy compared to writing: the possibility that the reader is reading something wrong is miniscule compared to the possibility that the writer’s writing wrong. For crying out loud, you don’t use your fingers to read! (Unless you’re blind) Writing is like reverse reading, and so many things can go wrong.

That being said, this is the only ambiguity you can fix. Sometimes the reader isn’t the culprit: most of the times, you picked a poor choice of words. You left the door open for confusion and multiple meanings. Remember, it’s an ill day for you when the reader needs to decipher what you wrote like a linguist deciphers an ancient language or when Sherlock solves the Mystery of the Quirky-Looking Symbols. (Also known as the Mystery of the Dancing Men…I’m a nerd…)

But in the end, the principle remains the same: avoid ambiguity by choosing the most concise version of the word in question. If “hit” is too vague, substitute “strike” “whack” “punch” “slap” or any of the others. You want to be as concise as possible in order to create writing others want to read and to avoid ambiguity.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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