Sunday, October 18, 2009

Make Every Word Count - Part 1

The 3 R's of Wordiness:
Redundancy, Repetition, Rambling

"Make every word count."  If you've studied this business, either through creative writing courses or through the hundreds of books available on the subject, you already know those four words—Make Every Word Count—represent one of the High Commandments of professional writing.

Several factors combine to make this commandment critical:
  1. In the publishing business, words are money.
    1. Every page added to a magazine or book increases its production cost.
    2. Additionally, many publications pay the writer on a per-word or per-page basis, and they'd rather not pay more than necessary.  I know: What a shocker, right?
    3. Never forget that this is a competitive business.  Publishers must make money, or there is no business.
    4. This doesn't mean you can't say what you need to say in a piece; it means you must do so in the tightest possible manner.
  2. People have, or at least claim to have, less time to read than in the past.  They tend to be impatient, as a result.
    1. If you, dear author, fail to get to the point, whatever the subject or venue, your reader is liable to bail out early.  To hold his interest, you must move the story/characters/setting/etc. forward at all times.  If you dawdle, he might return to those reruns of "I Love Lucy" and "M*A*S*H" that he's only seen 74 times each.
    2. Our time is precious, and so is your reader's.  Show some respect, even if you think he can live without that 75th viewing of the rerun.
  3. On top of everything else, Wordiness is just plain bad, lazy, dull writing.
    1. Redundancy is not only boring and unnecessary; it's rather insulting.  Readers often respond to redundancy by saying to themselves, "Geez, what's with this writer?  Does he think I'm an idiot?  I get it, already."
    2. Repetition tips off the reader that you're running out of things to say, so you keep saying the same things over and over.  Gee whiz, that makes for an exciting read.  Not.
    3. Rambling tips off the reader that… well, perhaps you shouldn't quit your day job.

The greatest challenge here, in this editor's opinion, is that most writers don't recognize Wordiness when they see it.  For most of us, our writing tracks with our speech, and follows that lead.  Big trouble.  When's the last time you heard someone utter a gem such as this:
"Like, have you guys like seen that like totally amazing movie about like androids and robots and stuff?  It's like, you know, so totally awesome that like, whatever, it's just cool and totally awesome."
Okay, so I stretched it to its extreme to illustrate my point.  Nonetheless, I'll bet you've heard something similar.

The point is that our speech leans heavily toward the lazy, improper, garbled, repetitive and disjointed.  Your writing must not.  Even if you speak as though you actually stayed awake in high school English and have an IQ over 43, you still allow nagging "errors" to creep into your speech.  We all do.

The problem you face as a writer is that your default voice is the one with which you speak.  To break those chains in your writing, you must learn to self-edit at the deepest possible level—every sentence, every word.  More than that, however, you must learn to turn off that voice in your head as you write and edit.  Finally, you must rely on your editor to bring objectivity and a fresh perspective, and to catch what your subconscious mind allows to slip blindly past.

The search for this is another cause of Wordiness.  Writers often seek to elevate their prose, to foment literary bliss, and I applaud the inclination.  However, too many writers confuse quantity for quality.  Elevated prose consists not of more words, but of better words, better formed.  Sometimes, the simplest way of saying something is the most elegant, and the most complex way of saying something is just plain torture.

Here's an actual example from a piece I edited.  I shall change the character names and keep confidential the author and title.
BAD: The inner glow of warmth and compassion Fred initially believed to live behind Barney's gray eyes, blazed fiercely with an entirely different meaning for Betty, or so it seemed to Fred, and in Betty’s attachment to Barney, she lost the capability to manifest emotion toward anyone else.
      Note: Oh, brother.  I bogged down several times in that sentence, but I found the final segment the most amusing—and by amusing, of course, I mean terrible.  That one 47-word sentence should probably be two sentences totaling 25-30 words.  I offer no alternatives because—good grief—the writer just has to go back to the drawing board here.  "…the capability to manifest emotion toward…?"  Seriously?

If I may borrow an oft-quoted ditty from another area in life:
"It's not the size of the boat that matters; it's the motion of the ocean."

Pith is not your enemy.  Pith is your friend; it will not preclude you from writing high prose.  Indeed, it will aid you in that endeavor.

Ultimately, I believe the best way to learn how to recognize and destroy Wordiness is through example—simple, repetitive trial and error.  Therefore, I shall focus in the next blog entry on providing a series of examples and preferred alternatives.  Tune in again soon.

'Til next time, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

1 comment:

  1. You're right: that bad example is bad, indeed. I look forward to your other examples.
    Lee H.