Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Verbosity Cure

Charlotte Firbank-King

We all know how to tell a story. But just because anthropologists say Homo sapiens (Latin: wise man—but that’s debatable given the state of our planet) are storytelling apes, doesn’t mean we know how to transfer a story to paper. An articulate person with a mellifluous voice can make a good story sound great. But once we put pen to paper, we must follow the rules of the craft.


Creative writers are allowed some license to tweak and reshape the content to convey a meaning, but we need to learn the rules and correct use of grammar before we get the badge allowing us to modify those rules. If you don’t have a solid understanding of grammar, take a class or do some studying on your own. Nothing will kill a story faster than poor grammar or punctuation.


Use the KISS principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Examine each sentence with the diligence of a hobo sifting through a garbage can. If a paragraph uses five words, cut it down to two or three. If you’ve taken half a page to convey an image, cut it down to ten or fifteen words. If absolutely necessary, you can add a few more words later.

Read a section aloud. Do you trip over words? Or did you use rhymes or alliteration that draws the reader’s attention away from the story?

Then ask someone to read it aloud to you. If he stumbles or has to read a section again, there’s probably a problem with how a sentence or paragraph was constructed. Then listen carefully to how he reads it and take note. People often, subconsciously, translate written words from how they are written to how they are said comfortably or smoothly.

Examine every sentence in this manner. If even one sentence doesn’t pass muster, the whole scene could fall flat.

Words should be chosen because they express a meaning, not because they impress readers. Readers don’t care that you spent hours going through a thesaurus looking for the most impressive word to show how literate you are. Individual words should never draw attention to themselves or be more important than the story. Your reader JUST WANTS A STORY that doesn’t require a dictionary to decipher the words used to tell it.

Make every word count, and I mean EVERY word. There is no such thing as, “Oh, that will do.” Edit and edit again, making sure you’ve said what needs to be said using the exact right words to say it.

When conveying an emotion, again, brevity is the key.

His eyebrows dipped, and his eyes flashed as his mouth tightened to a hard line.

We get it. He’s angry.

His mouth tightened or His eyes flashed or He glared will convey the same message and we’ve cut our description from fifteen words to two or three. It may not sound as impressive, but that’s where creativity comes in. Find your own way to say it using as few words as possible.

Conjunctions are invisible words, but even those can exhaust a reader.

The old man walked along the road, and every step seemed to jar his body, and he was also weary to the depths of his disturbed soul as his rheumy eyes shifted back and forth across the verge.
Instead, say:

Shoulders slumped, the old man shuffled along the road, his rheumy eyes searching the verge.

Let your writing speak for itself. If the old man’s shoulders are slumped, then he’s despondent. Shuffling indicates possible pain or weariness. It’s not that difficult to cut this sentence from thirty-eight words to fifteen—and we could even dump “his” if we wanted.

Edit. Then edit again and again. Eliminate as many unnecessary words as possible, especially the easy ones like “that” and “had.”

Test yourself—pick any paragraph from your manuscript, count the words, then see how many you can remove and still convey your meaning. Go one step further and take out all the adjectives and adverbs. Then put one or two back. In other words, slim the paragraph to an anorexic state, then fatten it slightly to perfection.

Verbose means using more words than needed to express something. Don’t let your precious story suffer from verbosity.

Remember, we have professional editors on staff who can help you recover from a severe case of verbosity. It’s what we do.

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