The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible - Vladimir Nabokov

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you - Zora Neale Hurston

23 November 2009

Keep It Short

I tend to be long winded when I'm musing (thus my usual essay length posts). Today, in keeping with the topic, I will be brief (-er).
A colleague of mine was interviewed by the local news station yesterday and asked to explain his new discovery. He is an MD and notorious in the lab for an inability to say anything plain. I watched the poor reporter grow more and more frustrated as she attempted to wring one usable sentence out of him. Finally, she said, "That's not a news story, it's a bunch of words!"
Words alone do not make a story. In fact, words can get in the way. My colleague was trying to convey every nuance, unwilling to trim it down to the essentials, and nothing was getting across.
My first drafts are burdened with useless adjectives, adverbs, "just" and so on. I'm learning to prune things (though my new problem is finding a balance between conciseness and voice--another topic for another day). "The First Five Pages" by Noah Lukeman, as well as many wonderful blog posts, have been a huge help to me. Lukeman points out that, instead of enhancing, adjectives and adverbs weaken the subject. If you must use an adjective, instead of stringing them together you should choose one, preferably an unusual one.
Descriptions are where I offend the most. Here's an example from a first draft:
She liked his straight, black hair, a raven’s wing, which was just a little too
long but nicely framed his handsome features. She liked his dark brown eyes too,
how they magnetically drew her in.
I've improved it a bit since then:
She liked his raven’s wing of hair, a little too long, which fell shyly
over dark eyes.
There is so much to learn, some days I feel overwhelmed, and some days I feel like a hack. Cool-headed editing can be a blow to the ego. How do you deal with word soup, and how do you keep up your confidence?


  1. That is TOO funny about the reporter! Yes, we all feel like that. I got a marked up manuscript emailed to me a week ago from my Berkley editor and I scrolled down wondering where my brain was when I made my errors. But you know...they're all easy to correct. It's the voice they like the best, I think. They just slashed through anything they didn't like--like you did.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. All easy to correct--that's what I needed to hear. This rewriting has been a bit trying. Thanks Elizabeth.

  3. Sometimes it is nice to read something that isn't pruned down but for the most part unnecessary description has to go. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Cassandra--I know what you mean. There is some prose so luscious you want more of it (wish that were me). As a writer, I'm always tempted to describe more, make people see what I see, but as a reader I get bored with those bits. So, I'm learning to be kind to the reader.