Wordy Wisdom: Very, Very Verbose

Last week, I wordily confessed my wordy sins.  I tend to over-express things.  I want to make absolutely sure that the reader understands just how funny a scene is in my story.  I want my vision of a character’s expression or the sound of their voice – how they say something – to come through so that the reader shares my experience when I imagined up my world and my characters and my adventures.

I want them to see the details.

pos-adverb The problem is that no matter how detailed I am, every reader is going to see something different.  If I describe the trees as deepest emerald green, arching their branches majestically over the stone path like a cathedral ceiling, a hundred different readers are going to envision a hundred different emerald, branchy , arching, cathedral tree ceilings.  One of the key differences between a book story and a film story is that the reader’s eyes are given a picture in the latter, but in the former, the picture is created in the minds of both author and reader, and that picture changes as a result.

The question is, how much information does a reader actually need to get the general idea?  If we authors have conjured up a scene in our heads, we want to guide our readers as close as we can get them to that image.  What can we say to get them there?

My imperfect solution is often a succession of adverbs and adjectives, descriptive words that define and direct the scene.  I want my characters speaking angrily or dramatically, quietly or excitedly, impulsively or thoughtfully.  For instance: “Don’t touch that.”  How is the character saying it?  Why?  What does it sound like in my head?  I want my reader to know.

mark twain
Mark Twain always looks like he just stepped on an entire family of adverbs.

Mark Twain said that if we see an adverb or adjective, we should kill it.  My response is on the defensive side.  First of all, what did adverbs ever do to Mark Twain?  Secondly, I don’t think someone with a pen name has any business telling anyone else that they are being excessive.  And thirdly, sometimes an adverb creates exactly the right feeling we want to express, and removing the word removes the feeling.

What I think Twain may be getting at in his extreme way is the virtue of moderation.  I have begun to go back through my story, and one thing I am looking for is how often I use descriptive words, particularly adverbs, that can simply easily be removed.  If I take it out, will the meaning change? Do I need it?

Words like “excitedly” and “obstinately” and “incandescently” are large and dramatic and easy to spot.  I love adding “rather” to sentences to convey instant irony.  Everything can be “rather” something.  Of course, if everything is “rather” something, “rather” doesn’t mean anything, at all.  I have to be very careful to eliminate excessive “rather”s from my stories.

One of the sneakier adverbs that catches me is “very.”

And now I’m paranoid.  Have I used it in this post?  Is it lurking somewhere nearby?

Yep.  Found it.

I am afraid to admit the number of times I have gone through a story and found a whole host of “very”s living within it. If Twain thinks that adverbs are the enemy, then he would probably say that “very” is their leader.   “Very” is not just its own problem.   “Very” always has friends –  modifying friends in the forms of adjectives and adverbs and more adverbs.  “Very” can become “Very, very”, which can then be added to another adverb, another adjective, stretching on and on until the sentence is nothing but a whole lot of “very”s and nothing else.

This is, needless to say, very, very bad writing.

I cannot agree with Mr. Twain that all “very”s are bad.  Adverbs have their place, as do adjectives.  We must describe and define in order to give our pictures life and depth.  There is, however, a great deal to be said for strong, meaningful words that need no trimmings.  Something very, very bad is awfulhorrid, despicable, or vile.  Something said excitedly is blurtedexclaimed, or gasped.

We have at our disposal enough word that are defined in themselves that we do not so often need crutches.  Adjectives and adverbs have their place.  They need not be always killed.  But they will be more effective if used less often, and the story will move all the more swiftly and surely if there are fewer words wandering around in the middle.

(Who wants to count how many adverbs I used in that last sentence?)

Wordy Wisdom: Too Much of a Good Thing

It’s the month of March, which means all sorts of things.

  • It means that the weather feels the need to act like a cantankerous lion for the next few weeks before retreating into wooly, warm spring.
  • It means that there are Ides to beware (which could be good or bad depending on whether or not you are an emperor.)Beware-the-ides-of-March-730709
  • It means that for just one day, everyone will suddenly believe in leprechauns (which impresses the leprechauns not at all).
  • It also means that the days are ticking by, and there is a great, long manuscript awaiting editing on my digital desktop.  Editing is not my favorite thing, to be quite honest.  I like creating new material more than I like niggling over the old stuff.  And it’s never done.

Because I must suffer through this editing process, I thought that I would allow our faithful readers to suffer a bit, too.  I’m just nice like that.

So, while March grumbles and blunders toward April, I am going to discuss one of the areas in which I struggle the most when it come to writing: wordiness.

I love words.  This is a good thing, since I also like to write. Words are fun.   They can be played with and manipulated and built one atop the other into grand and glorious statements of deep meaning.  I can make my readers laugh with them.  I can shock and dismay with them.

Unfortunately, there is such thing as using too many words, and I have this problem.  Case in point, let’s take a look at how long it took me to get to the point of my post.  I’d like to say that I made my post wordy on purpose as a teaching exercise, but this is actually just my problem with using too many words.  Like “actually.”  “Actually” didn’t need to be there.  Sorry.

I think many times, we writers get so excited to see words appearing on the page in front of us that we forget that quantity is only a partial triumph.  We become so enthralled with a delightful turn of phrase that we don’t realize a much shorter sentence might do the trick just as well, and our readers would thank us for it, too.   We add the perfect adjective, and the sentence starts to shake.  We carefully nudge an adverb into place, and it begins to tip.  We throw on a semicolon so we can keep going; the sentence tumbles over in a heap of excellent, frustrating words.

wordiness calvin and hobbes academia writing

For the next few weeks, I’m going to talk more about words – misused words and overused words and ways that we could let our words serve our purposes better.  In this struggle of mine, I’d like to explore our options. How can we create something beautiful with our words without stepping over the line of what is good into something florid, exaggerated, or dull?  When is that extra word necessary and when have we said enough?

I should probably stop writing now before this wordy post on wordiness gets any wordier.

The Best of LHP – On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability, Part Two

This post was originally published May 2013, a week after I graduated with my master’s degree in English. 

This post is primarily a follow-up on my post at the beginning of the month. This gives me a chance to respond to readers collectively and to develop some additional thoughts from their comments. 

At the beginning of the month, I discussed a valuable lesson I learned from reading Stephen King’s On Writing: the importance of revision and the necessity of peer-reviewed criticism. These two elements of writing spring from the writer’s willingness to be vulnerable to the reviewer’s critiques and suggestions.

Many readers responded to the post in two ways. First, some alluded to the general hesitation we have has writers to share our work because we fear exposure. Indeed, as we write, we show the world our thoughts and creative abilities, an offering that can often leave us feeling, well, vulnerable. A friend in my fiction writing class this last semester told me she feared giving the teacher her story because it spoke so much about her as a person and an artist. While I’m not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, I do think stories reveal our personalities and our perception of the world and the people around us. Paul in the epistle to the Romans alludes to the Creator’s own divine attributes displayed in creation, and John calls Christ the Word of God, the Maker’s very expression of himself. Like our Creator, we reflect our personality and worldview through our art. Basically, it shows the world us, an aspect we must learn to accept and share if we are ever going to be good writers.

Second, one astute reader mentioned the wisdom we writers need to distinguish between constructive criticism and negative criticism. The former affords us the chance to grow, change, and embrace relationships; the latter tears us down and discourages us from pursing our goals and desires. Further, we also need to distinguish between good constructive criticism and bad constructive criticism. I have watched my students struggle with this distinction, but they soon discovered that learning the difference requires practice and patience. While we must have a certain openness to criticism, as this reader pointed out, we must cultivate a certain level of wisdom needed in revision to separate the helpful from the harmful or the hurtful.

Our willingness to share our stories show we also understand the relational nature between the artist, the work, and the reader: the artist has to be vulnerable to give his work to the world either in editing or in publishing. Withholding our story from our readers does not show our love for writing; it shows we operate in a vacuum, hoarding our creative minds and our perspective on our world from other people. When our Maker created this world, he did so with the intention of sharing it with man out of love and desire for fellowship, and this relational element in creation behooves us as artists to reflect such a purpose. Therefore, we need to be vulnerable enough to share our stories with our readers for them to enjoy the work and rejoice with us in our creative abilities.

Red Pens and Panic Attacks

Announcement: Due to some administrative changes at Lantern Hollow Press, we are currently revamping our editing team and the schedule for the newsletter. We ask that you please be patient, and we hope to have the next newsletter out soon.

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Announcements over–now, let’s get the good stuff.

This month I’ve been ruminating on the various methods of editing, the fear of editing and the pain of editing. I thought I’d finish up this topic with an anecdote about editing…

When I was in high school, we all lived in dread of the senior thesis. It was a ten page research paper designed to get us all ready for college. I know now that ten pages is only a trifle. But at 16, contemplating writing that much on one topic, ten pages might as well have been a hundred pages.

“I heard she buys a whole box of red pens at the beginning of the year.”   Erin said wide-eyed and serious.” And they’re gone by spring.”

My friends all lounged around the closed concession stand in the gym lobby.  It was our favorite after school hang out spot.  Several of my friends were in the senior English class.  They had just submitted their first drafts.  There was tension, fear and relief.

“She makes the papers bleed.” Dan retorted gleefully. He was one those who took pleasure in watching his friend squirm, even though he was feeling the pressure having just handed in his first draft.  Ellie looked as if she’d faint.  She was already stressed beyond words and she was still in her junior year.

Liz chimed in, “but the bleeding is good.”  Liz’s eyes were bright with the prospect of writing and editing. “The blood means that you are heading in the right direction.”

Ellie cringed, “Red ink means I’ve failed. I’ll never pass.  I’ll never graduate.”

Candy laid an encouraging hand on Ellie’s shoulder.  “No one escapes without a bleeding paper. You’ll be fine.”

“Dipping with bloody red ink!”  Sam jeered.

“Well, she’s called Mrs. Mark-a-lot for a reason.”  Dan chuckled.

Ellie burst into tears, thinking of her academic career vanishing before it had even started.

My senior English teacher lived up to her nickname.  The papers bled ink, and there were many tears, groans, and terror.  I can safely say I did better than survive, I passed. (So did Ellie – with honors, no less).  But there was something to be said about Mrs. Mark-a-lot’s methods.  She forced us all to work on our papers in sections and drafts.  Our first drafts were painfully slashed, hacked and mutilated.  But we were given the chance to heal, repair and rebuild our papers; thus making them better.  If we did it right the second & third drafts would bleed less and less until it only came back with a few scrapes.  Because of her, I learned to love the red pen as much as Liz and saw the benefits of a good long editing process for my writing.

Editing – When You Are Done or As You Go?

To continue my theme of editing this month, I want to consider timing.

I struggle with the need/desire to edit as I write.  For a writer, I have terrible spelling and my grammar is not what it should be.  Therefore, I am constantly hitting backspace and glaring at the perpetual red squiggles under words that I have unconsciously misspelled. (Just writing that sentence, I had three misspellings and I hit backspace at least a dozen times – confessions are not easy).  All that to say, I have to edit certain aspects of my writing as I go.

I know that some people turn off the red squiggles because they find it distracting. I congratulate any of you who can pull that off. Perhaps it is the better method for writing.  It was suggested that those who were participating in NaNoWriMo do so, because the point was to write and got the raw story out on paper – the faster the better. However, if I just wrote and did not have the spell checker on, I’d never know what I was trying to say when I went back to edit.

Setting aside the need for some practical editing while we go, when is the best time to edit?

Is it better to edit as you go – chapter by chapter, or section by section?

Or is it when you are completely done, staring at the last words of the story?

I see the advantages of both approaches.  Edit as you go, keeps the story fresh and allows you to incorporate ideas as they come to you.  If you think of a chapter or a section of the story that isn’t quite right any more because of “new” insight, you feel free to go back and make the change.  While editing only when you are done, keeps you focused on the end goal – finishing the story.  If you think of something that you want to go back and change, simply make a note and keep writing. You can make the change later when you’re making all the changes.

As I have mentioned, I am an edit as you go sort of person.  This is in fact a problem for me, because I don’t finish things.  I get caught up in the editing – making that chapter better or fixing that character or plot hole – that I forget to actually finish the story.  I get lost in the editing.  My stories live forever in the vague domain of somewhere between “I’m actually writing something new” and “I’m perfecting what has already been written” to the detriment of the story’s completion. My friends and fellow authors have prompted me to abandon the editing process and “just write the story already!”  But I am reluctant. I can honestly say that NaNoWriMo has helped me.  I did not edit as much as I went along.  When you have a word count and a deadline, editing is too time consuming.

I am curious, what do you think is the best “when” to edit?  Are you an “edit as you go” person or an “ardent edit when finished” person?

Happy writing and happy editing!