Friday, 15 April 2011

M is for Maximum Minimum

One of the skills a writer needs is to be able to get the most out of the words he uses. It is relatively easy to go on at length about something and by doing so convey what you mean to the reader. If I describe something using as many words as possible you will eventually be able to visualise it. If I keep going it will get annoying. Once someone knows what you mean, they will not appreciate your eagerness to be extra super clear.

It is not just a matter of using the fewest words either. Simply stating facts in a literal manner ends up being very dull. But when you can concisely convey what is happening and at the same time evoke an emotion, a strong tone and specific voice, then you start to create something beyond information, you create story.

It is something of an irony that the most efficient, succinct way to get across something that people instantly recognise and relate to is to use a cliché. If I say 'He had a face for radio' you know exactly what I mean and it is a clever way of saying it, and kudos to whoever came up with it. The thing is, it's easy to get a laugh with someone else's joke but that doesn't make you funny. Being an author is about authorship and you want people to know that what they're reading is you, it's your work and your ideas and you should get the credit (or blame).


It can be fun to use flowery or even purple prose and some people may have a preference for that style. It may even be a perfectly reasonable way of writing in certain genres. But if you needed to rewrite it in a more concise manner, could you? Because a carpenter who tells you the hammer is the best tool for the job but doesn't have anything else in his toolbox isn't necessarily the person you want to employ. And there are certainly times when less is more.

If something happens quickly, you don't want to take up pages and pages describing it, you would just end up creating the opposite effect from the one you want. And if a character is of minor importance then describing them in great detail is going to be confusing. The amount of words you spend is going to be taken as a reflection of the importance of the thing that you're writing about. So if someone walks into the scene and you feel it's necessary to give the reader an idea of what they look like, describing every single item of clothing that they are wearing will certainly do that but if after announcing the dinner is ready they disappear and are never heard from again it will seem rather strange thing to have done.

By and large capturing a moment in a few words is a very valuable skill and one that should be exercised whener possible. Although there are times when people go too far in the other direction. When critiquing sometimes it is possible to get so wrapped up in pointing out every possible place where edits can be made that eventually a line as innocuous as "Dave sat down and ate his dinner" will draw the comment that you don't really need to say that they sat down since sitting is implying a downward movement. And standing up, do you really need to say up? These sort of silly over-compensations turn up from time to time but you have to allow for the language as it is used in everyday life. Indeed, leaving room for voice in the narrative means sometimes a little inefficiency is desirable. But again, it should be because you choose it to be that way, not because you happen to have your hammer with you and nobody ever taught you how to use a screwdriver.

25 comments:

Kari Marie said...

When I first started writing, I had no idea what was considered a full length novel. Of course research garnered me the appropriate information, but I still marvel at the size limitations some publishers have. It seems so arbitrary. I'm sure there is a very good reason for it. I just haven't found that part of the research yet.

Patricia Lynne said...

I'm with Kari, when I first started writing I had no idea about novels. I just wrote. It was a bit blissfull back then. Now I have to pause and wonder about the picture I'm trying to paint with words.

Halli Gomez said...

Thanks for posting this tip. One memorable critique I got was about this. Using too many words when they are not necessary. It has stuck with me and I try to be aware of this when I write.
It is a hard balance - getting just enough and no more.
And of course having them be just right.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Maybe that's why I'm a bare bones writer...

Melissa Dean said...

Loved this post! It's so hard to scale down a manuscript. Every word should have purpose and be a necessity. Great advice!

Josh Hoyt said...

I like what you have written here. I find this line of writing too much and too little to be hard for me at times. Thanks for the information.

Melissa Bradley said...

Excellent advice. I sometimes find myself torn over how much and how little to say.

Word Nerd said...

This is why all writers need a few good beta-readers. All those little extras can be distracting, but someone with an eye for detail can help weed out what should have never been.

My "L" post is right here: http://www.word-nerd-speaks.com/2011/04/long-long-list.html

McKenzie McCann said...

I think it all comes down to voice. Shakespeare would sound really weird if he said "I will now compare you to a summery day" rather than "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

The first is a lot more direct, and we really do get the same image from it. But it simply isn't his style.

I also blogged about flowery vs succinct writing once. I find the topic to be quite enthralling, personally.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Great advice! It also applies to synopsis writing, in that you're stripping your work of all those minute details and giving the basics. Either way, it's hard to get things just right. Sometimes, the things that need to go are the things you like the best or had the most fun writing. Tricky, tricky.

Alison Stevens said...

Wonderful post, Mood! Writing with clarity and brevity is a skill. One I'm still working on. :)

Her highness, Samantha Vérant said...

Oh, yes! Make every word count - important for pacing! Say what needs to be said, don't repeat things, and move on!

MISH said...

Well as a fairly new fiction writer , I certainly have my work cut out for me !!
I have a looong way to go before I get to this stage ... but I'm learning a lot along the way ... thanks for the enlightening post !!

~MICHELLE~
http://writer-in-transit.co.za/category/other/rambles-rants-and-raves/

Charmaine Clancy said...

Really good point, you need balance in your writing. I cringe when I hear English teachers telling students that sentences should be six words long and paragraphs should have five sentences (yes, true story).
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Carol Ervin said...

Fresh, accurate words (minimal or expansive) + emotion = art. Evoking emotion may be the hardest part. I don't think a writer can go for it directly. Any thoughts about that?

Thoughtful post, thanks.

mooderino said...

@Carol - emotion leads to behaviour, what people do will reflect their emotional state. The trick is to come up with interesting behaviour and then show the reader what the person is doing, and they'll figure out how they must be feeling. Once you know what emotion you want to evoke you can use context and action to create it. Ther writer goes from emotion->action, but the reader sees it as action->emotion.

Lydia K said...

So true! It's hard work getting it all just right. Great post!

Ellie said...

Great advice. I always write whatever comes into my head for the first draft, even if it's overly long. It's during the re-write that you weed out the unnecessary words!

Ellie Garratt

Ann said...

I have a cliche that I have been pulled up on in my current WIP. I was trying to convey a buzzing, trouble is my brain refuses to rework it. HeyHo! Hard work is an understatement.

Madeleine said...

I love story description, but I once read a novel that seemed to say something in one long paragraph, only to repeat the same idea in the next and the next. I was keen to get on with the story. :O)

Arlee Bird said...

Very true. I need to learn more word economy.


Lee
Tossing It Out

Melissa Sarno said...

Great post! I try to be as concise as possible but my first drafts are usually pretty long winded. I love the editing process of tightening it up :-)

Gail M Baugniet said...

Well put. It is sometimes difficult for an author to develop their own voice or to get a point across "in their own words." I've often had to edit out a cliche or a colloquialism that might be misunderstood.

Milo James Fowler said...

So very true! Great post.

Nicole said...

I tend to write long articles and blog posts, but was recently able to challenge myself to write a shorter blog post about love, and it worked.

I don't really worry too much about length when I'm not writing for clients or paid assignments. If what I have to say comes out to be longer than expected, I keep it that way. Sometimes, it's long and other times, it's short.

Since I write screenplays and not novels, I can't be too concerned with word count. LOL.

The Madlab Post

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