Monday 22 October 2012

Words: The More The Muddier

The idea that the more words used the clearer the meaning becomes is one that trips up a lot of writers.

Not that additional details are always a bad thing, but the ‘a little more information couldn’t hurt’ approach is very definitely wrong. It can very much hurt.

If I want to visit you then there is a minimum amount of info (street and house number), and an optimum amount (best route, which exit to take) that I need. And then there’s an excessive amount (the name of your neighbour’s dog).

On the other hand, what difference does it make if you mention the neighbour’s dog? It’s not going to make the address harder to find.

This is usually where a story gets muddled, even though what it’s telling you isn’t hard to understand. It’s not that you can’t use language to paint a picture or a mood, but you also need to be aware that words on a page have an effect that has nothing to do with their literal meaning. Words have the power to impact readers on a more primal level.

The number of words used to impart an idea or description, the length of sentences and of paragraphs, can all change the way words enter a reader’s brain. You can use this knowledge to create different effects, but the effects will also be there even when you don’t mean them.

If you are unaware of what these effects are, you can end up unconsciously creating a reading experience you did not intend. And not all experiences are good experiences.

Short sentences, short paragraphs, lots of white space on the page, speeds things up. It can be choppy and lack flow if used to excess, but generally that won’t cause too much problem for a reader.

Long sentences can be lyrical and evocative. But the instinctual reaction is to assume more words equals more important. If your aim is only to describe something clearly, you can’t relate that to the reader just by thinking it while you write.

If June is going to a party and I want the reader to know what she looks like in her new outfit I might take my time describing each item of clothing. But it’s also going to have other effects.

The longer I go on, the more important clothing is going to seem to this woman. The clothes may also start to carry an implication that later they will play a part in the story. Thematically, clothes and other features of her outfit (the colours, the style, the language used) will be assumed to be important to what follows.

If these things are intentional, that’s fine. But if they aren’t, it’ll still be assumed that they are. And if that isn’t followed through, the story will be judged as a failed attempt at something that was never intended.

As well as importance, number of words also correlates to time. This is not optional, it always happens.

“Where are you going?” asked James.
Karen turned around. Her hair was lank and unwashed. She was wearing the same t-shirt, the green one that said ‘I’m with this idiot’ with an arrow pointing up at herself, and the same jeans as the day before. Her nails were filthy.
“Nowhere,” she said.

No matter what my intention, that will be read as a pause between question and answer. If my intention is to let the reader know what Karen looks like, but the conversation to be without break, that’s not how it will be read.  And the longer the stuff between question and answer, the longer the pause. Even if it’s possible for James to take in her appearance in a single, quick glance, that’s immaterial. How long I take to tell you what he sees instantly will be what the reader uses to judge the passage of time (unless I specifically point out that James saw all the things described in an instant).

This becomes a big deal when writers choose to use a heavily descriptive style. It’s not just about purple prose or claiming literary fiction as a defence, but about placement and structure. If people are pausing for minutes at a time in between a basic conversation, or thinking encyclopaedia-length thoughts as they walk from the sitting room to the kitchen, it’s going to feel weird and unrealistic. And very slow.

Equally, if you use very short sentences in a scene that’s not very tense, you’re going to create a rushed, urgent feel.

The point here isn’t that there’s anything wrong with slowing things down or speeding them up, but more that often writers will not put any thought into the choice other than going with whatever takes their fancy. If you feel like writing a long paragraph painting a picture of the sky, why not? And the answer is because your characters are in the middle of a gunfight, and that’s not the best time to write 500 words on the colour blue.

It’s not always possible to be aware of these things when you are in full flow and trying to get an early draft completed, but when going over a piece of writing it’s worth considering the amount of text you’re giving to detailed description and action sequences in order to gauge whether the pacing and focus on events is appropriate to what’s happening in the scene.
If you found this post of use, please give it a retweet. Or leave a comment. Or maybe go make a cup of tea or coffee and have a think about it.


Cynthia DiFilippo Elomaa said...

Nope, no tea needed. I liked the post and found it very useful. Thanks :-)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'll have an energy drink instead.
Excessive description - not a chance! This is one of the few areas where my style of writing works in my favor. And I prefer reading books with minimal description. I have an imagination and know how to use it. I don't need to get bogged down with minor details.

mooderino said...


@Alex-I think lengthy description can be used effectively, just not very often and not by many people.

Chantel Rhondeau said...

Thanks, Mood. Another great article. I find having crit partners can really help me with this too. They're like - why doesn't she answer him sooner? Oops, too many other details between stuff then. I like people to see what my characters are doing as they talk, but you do have to be careful with how much detail you add. Great point!

Nancy Thompson said...

OY! As an editor, I can tell you, so many writers use excessive words. Some manuscripts have as many deletions in their track changes as words on the page. And in my editor letters, I ALWAYS write, don't say in 2 words what you can say in one! And detail for description for the sake of description alone is meaningless. If it's not wrapped in how the character is emotionally charged, don't even bother to write it down.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Excellent post.


mooderino said...

@Nancy-I think it's mainly to do with insecurity, the way a nervous person will run off at the mouth.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

The fine art of editing down words is one hell of a skill. Kudos to anyone that can do this well.

mooderino said...

@Michael-I think it helps for a writer to know what effect they want the words to have rather than hoping their subconscious will sort it out for them.

Elise Fallson said...

Please no more tea, going to explode.
Excellent post as always. Reminds me of a quote I saw on line a while back, "Economy and efficiency in writing are trademarks of sophisticated writers."

mooderino said...

@Elise-obviously that doesn't apply to blog posts which should be bloated and rambling. Right?

Elise Fallson said...

@Mood, I see you visited my blog again...(;

sjp said...

Great post! I definitely craft my sentences a tad long... Never thought about implying something without intending it, will keep this in mind :)

Bish Denham said...

I wonder what an editor would do with Dicken's works were he being published today.

LD Masterson said...

Got my tea thanks? I usually err on the side of 'less is more' and have to add in detail in places to keep a scene from feeling rushed.

dolorah said...

As you've mentioned, it all has its place in a writing. Knowing when to use what is a massive editing job.

Excuse me while I contemplate a glass of wine.


Rachna Chhabria said...

Extra or too much detail can bog a reader down. We should know just how much detail and description to add and what to leave to the reader's imagination. Great post.

mooderino said...

@Elise-your blog is, of course, the epitome of Gallic sophistication.

@sjp-there's always something else to worry about...

@Bish-I doubt Dickens would be writing in 19th century prose if he was around today. Although he probably wouldn't be overly fond of twitter.

@LD-too sparse prose can be as off-putting as too detailed.

@Donna-just the one glass, mind.

@Rachna-getting it right is a good feeling, one worth pursuing.

N. R. Williams said...

Well said and in few words. You bring new meaning to the term, 'word economy.' Love the picture.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood,

As one of the "DETAILED" writers, I use description to set a scene. It also depends on the genre. Fantasy, in particular, needs description to set the world, scene, characters, etc. But the writer does NEED TO KNOW when to stop. And mix things up a bit.

In my latest WIP, i would never achieve the "FILM NOIR" feel without my intricate descriptions. Times were much simpler then, no TV, no computers, no cell phones, etc. So life was the "distraction" war, climate, social gatherings, newspaper headlines ,,, you get the picture.

Balance is the key, It does take a master to keep the story moving. Throw in dialogue or an action to keep the story moving.

mooderino said...

@Nancy-you're the first person to ever commend me on my brevity.

@Michael-I don't think there's anything wrong with going long, it can be used very effectively if handled properly, it's the arbitrary use of long descriptions that trip up writers (and readers), I think.

Lydia Kang said...

Totally agree. You are wise, o Moody one.

mooderino said...

@Lydia-only intermittently.

Mike Cairns said...

Fantastic post, great food for thought, thanks. It seems like one of those things that you perhaps knew about but having it put into words just brings it into focus

mooderino said...


Dawn M. Hamsher said...

Your post makes me think of those awful math word problems from school. You had to weed through all the useless information to figure out the actual problem before you could answer it.

Wow! Who knew math could teach us about writing! Weed out the crap. Say what's important.

mooderino said...

@Dawn-'weed out the crap' should be on a t-shirt.

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