Sunday, June 29, 2008

Economy of words

Here are some tips which may improve your writing. I use these tips myself because my first drafts are gut-wrenchingly awful.

"To be" or not "to be". In most cases, you can convert present progressive tense (I am seeing) to present tense (I see) with little effect to its final meaning. I'm all for nuanced writing, but being shorter and direct is usually more powerful.

The "I"s have it. How many of your sentences start with "I"? How many of your paragraphs start with "I"? Can you rework the sentence? Dare to be clever... but not too clever that you're writing in Esperanto.

Starting to try. Why say, "he starts to walk" when you could say, "he walks"? Why say, "he tries to drive" when you can say, "he drives"?

Boil it down. What are you really saying? How many extra, empty words are crammed into each sentence? Harrison Ford's long speech in The Fugitive was pared down to, "I didn't kill my wife!" and Tommy Lee Jones' reply, "I don't care."

Terminate your qualifiers. Much lost verbiage is in adverbs and adjectives. Do you need "quite", "very", "actually", or "really"? For specific adverbs like "honestly" or "stupidly", migrate those descriptions into the action and describe that with verbs instead.

Terminate your articles. Do you really need to use "a" or "the" all the time?

Specific action. Why say "move" when you could say "transfer", "migrate", "nudge", or even "insinuate"? Each word is a chance to push your story closer to the end... so use each chance judiciously.

Keep tempo. Writing words is like writing music, and—like good music—we know good writing when we read it: long movement, long movement, short movement. Long long, short. Long long. Short. Short. Loooooooong. Short short short. Ever wonder why they taught us poetry in high school?

Punctuate. Ellipses (...), em dashes (—), [as opposed to en dashes (–), used for spanning years like 1986–2008, and hyphens (-), used for compound adjectives like 'heart-rending'], semi-colons, colons, and apostrophes are all useful in spicing up flaccid paragraphs.

Write as you say, or as you think. Be true to mimicking your inner or outer voice and others will "hear" your words better.

Using these simple tricks, here's a random passage to illustrate my points. First draft:
I saw the kids yesterday in the park. They were playing some sort of silly game which I could not remember. I walked down to get a closer look and they didn't seem to mind. I love watching kids play. They have such freedom of expression. They rejoice in simply being.

Wow: ulcer-worthy. Here's the next draft:
Kids in the park yesterday. Some silly game—couldn't remember. I got closer and they didn't mind. When kids play, they're free... they rejoice in being.

It's not Fawlkner, but it's more efficient and less stilted. A few passes more and I might concoct this svelte passage:
Kids in the park yesterday... watching them, my epiphany: they rejoice in being.

Final tip:
Leave them laughing. When the story is finished, get off the stage!

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