Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Writing Shorter Is Better But How Do You Do It?

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.
- Henry David Thoreau

The author of Walden gives us a piece of advice that writers today might heed. Henry David Thoreau wrote his book about an experiment of living in natural surroundings more than 150 years ago. I ran across the quote above and felt it worth taking a closer look. What I found in my research was a scathing look at the way Mr. Thoreau writes. It makes one wonder if he listened to his own words about writing shorter, or writing 'tight' as we might say today. 

Here is the assessment of Ken Kifer, who was an admirer of Thoreau and Walden. He seems to be able to separate what he likes and what he doesn't quite well with the quote below. 
Walden is a difficult book to read for three reasons: First, it was written by a gifted writer who uses surgically precise language, extended, allegorical metaphors, long and complex paragraphs and sentences, and vivid, detailed, and insightful descriptions. Thoreau does not hesitate to use metaphors, allusions, understatement, hyperbolepersonificationironysatiremetonymy,synecdoche, and oxymorons, and he can shift from a scientific to a transcendental point of view in mid-sentence. Second, its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense. Ironically, this logic is based on what most people say they believe. Thoreau, recognizing this, fills Walden with sarcasmparadoxes, and double entendres. He likes to tease, challenge, and even fool his readers. And third, quite often any words would be inadequate at expressing many of Thoreau's non-verbal insights into truth. Thoreau must use non-literal language to express these notions, and the reader must reach out to understand.— Ken Kifer[11]
Let's go back to the original quote. Thoreau suggests that short, tight writing is not an easy task for the writer. I now that's true and so do you. So often, the writers in my critique group submit a piece and then say that they know it is too long and they need help in cutting it to the maximum amount of words an editor is calling for. 
Wouldn't it be nice if we could put all the words into a box, shake it up and pour them out with the cuts made for us? If you ever find that writing fairy who can do this, let me know.
Otherwise, we all need to spend time editing our work and cutting vast amounts to make a better end product. We need to:
1. Look for redundancy: We often write two sentences that say basically the same thing with different words to make a point. We want the reader to be sure to 'get it.' Instead, they might be a bit miffed that you, the writer, didn't give them enough credit for 'getting it' in the first place. 
2. Strike unnecessary words: Words, or phrases, like really, very, just, only, in other words, for the most part do not add anything to your sentence. They tend to clutter what could be a perfectly good sentence on its own. Simple is best in all things.
3. Stop hammering a point: Make your point and then move on. Don't overstate your case. This falls under redundancy but I've seen writers who write an entire paragraph about one thing, then write another. Say it once and move on.
4. Overuse of adjectives: Newer writres tend to do this. They want to bring an image to the reader but tossing a bunch of adjectives into the air and letting them land wherever is not the best way to do this. Too many adjectives to describe one poor little noun makes for overwriting in a big way. 
5. Too many adverbs: Adverbs modify verbs. Writers sometimes think that using them on a regular basis helps them show the reader what is happening. An occasional adverb is alright but use them too often and the reader becomes tired.
6. Get rid of the superfluous:  A wise editor I once knew hammered this point with her students. She taught that anything that does not move the story along should be dumped. Every single sentence should have a reason to be in your story. If it doesn't, slash it. We all tend to add these little extras that really have no bearing on the story action. We like them but they become distracting. 
There are more ways to cut your first drafts and to tighten your writing but the ones above are enough to consider for now. If you can work on these six, you'll find that your writing has moved to a new level. Mr. Thoreau is right when he says that writing a piece shorter will take a long time. You come out a winner in the end if you heed his advice.  

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