What Did You Learn?

October 9, 2009

General Writing: Don’t Be Wasteful!

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 12:24 am

In one of my writing classes, called Memory to Craft, we talked about the length of your writing. By that I don’t mean a literal length; there was no specific limit that was the “ideal” amount. The professor, Melanie Braverman, gave us an assignment: take your current story and cut out 1/4 of the words, 1/3 if you can manage it. This was perhaps one of the best assignments I’ve ever been given in a writing class. It forces you to take your work and really pay attention to what you’ve written. You must look at the wording and consider if you’ve written it in the most precise and exact wording possible. This isn’t to say that you can’t have any long sentences or that you should force awkward sentences in order to hit the exact word number, but the point is, people tend to waste their words.

People have short attention spans. Putting in things that are long-winded and unnecessary are more likely to cause your reader’s mind to wander. Your point is also more likely to get lost amidst everything. The feel of the work becomes unfocused and scattered. (And when someone is reading a manuscript submission, it’s really frustrating to read a 600 page novel that would have been written in 300.)

In our writing class, we read the book Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino. It was probably one of the densest and most frustrating things I’ve ever read. I don’t think anyone in the class enjoyed it. At the same time, it was full of good points. One of the essays was titled exactitude which it defined as 1) a well defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question, 2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable, visual images, and 3) a a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination. Ironically, for a book that talked constantly about the needs for exact language, Six Memos tended to ramble on for pages, repeating its point over and over again. Nonetheless, it’s point was a good one. As Melanie said, “often writers are so concerned with getting the story right that the details fall by the wayside.” Don’t let that happen to you!

Finally, while reading other people’s work as well as my own, I’ve noticed that certain words tend to be thrown into sentences unnecessarily: just, even, that, whole, like, only. There are others of course, but these ones in particularly tend to be misused and pointless. “Just,” “even,” “only,” “so,” and “whole” tend to get used when stressing something but often don’t actually add any stress or meaning to the sentence. They’re also often misused. “Like” and “that” tend to just be superfluous. These are some easy ways to cut out some words but they certainly won’t be enough. “Very” is a word that I like to call a false modifier, in that often it actually detracts rather than strengthens your description and is often unnecessary. (For example, “she is captivating” versus “she is very captivating.” Captivating is already a strong word and using “very” in front of it only serves to take attention away from it. After all, would we otherwise think she was only marginally captivating? Can you actually be marginally captivating?)

My advice would be to go through your manuscript line by line (some even recommend reading one sentence at a time from the end of the work backwards to allow for concentration on the line itself instead of the work as a whole) and try to cut out at least 1/4 of the words. (For poets, try cutting out 1/4 of the syllables.)

Just remember, less is often more.

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