Concise Writing

concise-writingAs I tell the authors whose books I edit, it’s relatively easy to write a whole book. You just do a mind dump. Then you hire me to help you clean it up. It’s that “cleaning it up” part that becomes a challenge. We tend to love our words, especially all those nifty adjectives and adverbs we find in the thesaurus and stuff into our sentences. But bloated sentences tend not to make sense. They slow down our arguments and petrify our scenes. They can also add unintentional humor to our writing.

Strunk and White say, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts” (4th ed., p. 23). I call the cleaning up process pruning. We can begin to tighten our prose by looking more carefully at the modifiers we use and pruning away the ones that aren’t necessary to the sense of the sentence.

The author of a horror novel I edited tended to get carried away. I’ve italicized the redundant modifiers in these two sentences. “‘Get off my car,’ I said through gritted, perfectly straight teeth.” “There was a yellow frilly poodle on the top of the witchy skull’s head.” Yes, unintentional humor. It partly arises from too many adjectives.

I’ve italicized the redundant adjectives in these lines from an adventure novel. “‘Stay on yer feet,’ ordered the plump guard. … The fat, abusive guard chuckled out loud as he raised his arm that was wielding his wicked looking whip…. The obese guard’s wrist popped and the look of terror washed over his face.” How often do we have to say the guard is fat? Prune away repetition. Weed it out.

I also write book reviews, and one magazine limits reviews to 400 words. “Omit needless words.” It’s a lesson I’m learning (and teaching) every day.

Barbara Ardinger – To see what’s sizzling in my imagination and drizzling out through my fingers, see my web site, Do you want to write a book but not embarrass yourself in print? Let me be your editor!