Bonsai Writing: Down to the Bone.
Good morning! I want to thank everyone who dropped by last week and joined in the Editor’s Corner Q & A. A fun day for me, and, I hope, a helpful one for you. I will be pulling it all together and adding it to the EC archives sometime later this week.
Today I want to discuss trimming the fat we marble into our tales and presenting the cleanest, leanest work possible. (Vegetarians, my apologies for the metaphor. Think of shaping a bonsai, instead.) In my experience, most verbal excess comes from a simple bad habit: writing as we talk. Unnecessary conjunctions and prepositions, qualifiers and redundancies, litter spoken English – and, I imagine, most other languages – slipping in as casually as a hem or a haw or a thought-filled caesura. But put that into fiction or poetry and the flow sputters and stalls like a crusty engine.
The fact is, most of us overwrite. Stephen King advised, look at your work then cut 10%. Draconian? Perhaps. Still, it’s a standard to which we can all – including Mr. King – aspire. (Don’t get me started on famous writers who shun outside editing! In my humble opinion, they are of a piece with fools who choose to represent themselves at the bar.)
But what to cut and where? ‘That’ is a great starting place. Ubiquitous to the point of passing unnoticed, ‘that’ in its conjunctive form is a colloquialism easily excised 90% of the time. “The manuscript that he gave his editor…” sounds better and loses not a whit of meaning as, “The manuscript he gave his editor….” Take a scythe to your ‘thats’ and don’t look back.
A slew of other prepositions, articles, and conjunctions fall into this same category, their misuse serving only to muddy syntax and emasculate verbs and nouns. “Join in on the fun,” for example, may be fine on the playground, but, on the page, “join the fun” is more effective. Likewise, judicious use of gerunds can eliminate the need for stray words, usually conjunctions: “He growled through his teeth and refused to give ground.” vs. “Growling through his teeth, he refused to give ground.” Or: “He growled through his teeth, refusing to give ground.”
Spoken English is also rife with redundant phrases: end result; complicated dilemma, enter in, completely sated, etc. All results come at the end, all dilemmas are complex, to enter means ‘go in’ and sated to be ‘stuffed to the gills.’ Choose your words with care, understand their meanings, and toss any extraneous adjectives or adverbs. (Note: Some editors say, slash all adverbs and adjectives by half. A tad extreme to my thinking, still ruthless eyes – and ears – make for more-concise prose.)
When it comes to iterating ideas, don’t give into temptation. You will simply be paraphrasing yourself, which not only bogs down the narrative but also ticks off readers eager for a story not a lecture. Write it well the first time and trust your audience to get it.
Qualifying words and phrases – verbal hedges – fall squarely into the category of literary fat, but, as they are a particular peeve of mine, I will leave them to next week. For now, read your work aloud, see where it stumbles or gets lost in verbal superfluity. Then, mindful of integrity in tone and tale, if your sentences work without the thats, ands, ins, and buts, cut as deep as you can.