Monday, March 28, 2016

Less is Sometimes More

I love description. In fact, authors who use description in the proper way allow me, the reader, to see the scene, to immerse myself in the writing, and to be present in the story.

That's the beauty of choosing the right details to include in your story.

But more always means better, right?

Not so fast.

The other day I received a piece via email and sat down to edit it. Within the first paragraph, the author had plans to take me on a journey down a river. I was excited! I couldn't wait to see if the banks of the river were made of sand, silt, mud, or grasses. I wanted to know what the foliage looked like and whether or not the fauna and insects seemed familiar to me.


But by sentence number two, I found myself mentally tripping over the multitude of words and having to go back to the beginning to read what was written. The similes and metaphors tried too hard, and the adjectives and adverbs were far too many.
Exhibit A: Majestic gray Barnacle geese with thin, spotted, twig-like legs moved quietly among the long, brown, tail-like thrushes all while a woman--young with blond curls, willowy limbs, and azure eyes, a college student perhaps--sat on the silty warm banks of the 100-year-old ancient river.

Exhibit B: Dressed in tall, black riding boots and a gray-green oversize camouflage sweatshirt leftover from his college days, he walked quickly without noise to the side of the brown, muddy, murky river. Peering into the depths of the dark, dank water, he noticed how much the choppy liquid looked like his mother's coffee. 
Reading those sentences again, you might wonder how I'd fix them, right? I mean, they do give a nice picture of where the character is. And while writing is very subjective, too many words are simply too many. This is what I'd do.
Exhibit A: Majestic gray Barnacle geese with thin, spotted, twig-like legs moved quietly slipped among the long, brown, tail-like thrushes all while a woman--young with blond curls, willowy limbs, and azure eyes, a college student perhaps--sat on the silty warm banks of the 100-year-old ancient river.
The changes aren't much. I've simply removed unnecessary words. After all, twig-like implies thin, tail-like implies long, and if something has celebrated 100 birthdays, I think it's safe to say that you don't also need to use the word ancient.

Moving quietly can be replaced with a more descriptive (and adverb-free) word like slipped. Furthermore, I don't think that blond curls, willowy limbs, and azure eyes necessarily conjure college students, so if that girl is indeed a college student, the author should find another spot in the narrative to give us clues that tell us that fact.

The same technique can be applied to the second sentence as well.
Exhibit B: Dressed in tall, black riding boots and an gray-green oversize camouflage sweatshirt leftover from his college days, he darted walked quickly without noise to the side of the brown, muddy, murky river. Peering into the depths of the dark, dank water, he noticed how much the choppy liquid looked like his mother's coffee. (?)
I cut out unnecessary adjectives and replaced a verb-adverb combination with a better word choice, but here, we also find something that happens often in writing. The use of a simile (or metaphor) that just doesn't work for the reader. In my opinion, dark, choppy water never will be compared to smooth, warm coffee, even if his mother's coffee stinks.

In fact, as I publish this post, I'm still thinking about the best way to replace that simile.



Many writers get the description right. Pick up a book you think is well-written and pull out a paragraph. I'm betting you find yourself inside that story so fast, you won't know what hit you.

2 comments:

S. B. House said...

I think sometimes wordiness in writing comes from the author trying to convey exactly the picture in their head to the reader. Let's face it... the exact picture will never transfer; but that's okay, because it allows the reader to use their own mind to imagine.

Christina said...

Yes, I think you're right. And there are times when I am so wordy it's crazy. But multiple adjectives when one or two are sufficient is something that gets my goat.