Friday, July 28, 2017

Excess Words aren’t Always Fluff

I stupidly downloaded the newest version of Microsoft Word, and to say that I am literally going to murder the English grad they got to work on the grammar isn’t just to piss him off.

In a fit of rage, I spent the entire morning trying to figure out how to get it to stop trying to put commas into the middle of sentences and leave my passive voice alone. The second I opened it up it correct me on the use of adverbs or something of the like, and it turned out to be a trigger for some of the worse critiques I’ve gotten. Arguing with a computer about the merits of diversity in writing is almost as pointless as arguing with a frustrated writer, so instead I turned back to my echo chamber that is my blog.

For two years I spent my days deleting “excess” words from an oversized manuscript. The first 40,000 or so words were more about scenes and events, reorganizing and trimming them into a fine, precise plot. I will say that doing that strengthened the piece far more than the second half. The 30,000 or so “just”s and “began to”s definitely had their effect, and they taught me a great deal about my writing, mood, and the power of each individual choice.

But as I’ve said many times before, while some occasions deleting the excess words strengthened it and on other occasions it worsened it, in most cases, it merely changed it.

Everything you do, you had a reason. It may not have been a good reason—my most common motivator behind stylistic choices is stalling—but there was a reason, and to ignore that will simply have you hacking up your manuscript into a robotic, homogenized piece of drivel.

Some time ago, I read about a woman who, just before her book went to print, she changed the sentence, “He tried to stand and she shoved him down,” to “He stood halfway and she shoved him back.” Why? Because “tried to” is one of those No-No phrases.

Is he stood halfway better than he tried to? I’d argue no; in fact, it sounds a little more awkward to me if I was forced to critique it, but I believe that both/neither of these sentences differ that much in “quality,” but they do differ in image.

It’s about her reaction time. One is instantaneous, the other is delayed.

Does it matter? Probably not. But that’s the thing about little choices; they’re like pennies. You throw in one penny every time you make a good choice, they start to add up. Take one out every time you make a bad one, it’s not going to kill your book, but doing it too many times will have an effect on the overall result.

In deleting over a third of a manuscript, my style in writing change drastically. I am extremely happy with the results and have taken a lot of what I learned during that time to apply elsewhere, but there is magic in my previous writing, color and personality that is lost in the succinctness. The characters argue more, the world is darker, the action tenser.

Isn’t that a good thing? In many ways, yes, but the lightheartedness, the silliness, personability, the whimsy that I aspire to in most books was as all gone. It worked for this one manuscript, but it’s not something that I would want in all of mine—and especially not all novels in general.

So let’s talk about what purpose excess words serve.

They offer up variation.

One short sentence is good. Two helps with tension. Three makes a pattern. Four they start to get a little monotonous. If all of your sentences are simple and perfunctory, you’re going to have less control over the atmosphere and risk boring your audience. As Gary Provost said far better than me:

“I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

They control mood.

The duration of the sentence influences the duration of the moment. Why say, “Reaching out a hand, she plucked the orb from its branch,” when you can just say, “She plucked the orb from its branch”? Because sometimes it’s better to emphasize the slowness of the motion through description. You can show the audience caution instead of outright stating that she’s being cautious.

Telling the story from a character’s point of view tends to yield in more emotional investment from the reader. If he saw the movement of her reaching first, then having the reader see her reaching out her hand, focusing on that gesture instead of the orb itself, will help put them in the same mindset as the narrator.

It’s just one tool of many.

The problem with a lot of writing rules is that they can’t all be applied at once (especially the ones that contradict each other.) Try writing a chapter in which you have to use small words, no unusual terminology, no adjectives or adverbs, you show and don’t tell, and you use short sentences without it coming off as flat, mechanical, or juvenile.

“Slowly, she plucked the orb from its branch.”

“She cautiously plucked the orb from its branch.”

“She plucked the delicate orb from its branch.”

Longer sentences:
“Reaching out, she plucked the orb from its branch between two fingers.”

Specific verbs:
“She prehended the orb from its branch.”

Purple prose:
“As if catching a ball of light, she traced her fingers along the skin of the orb before lifting.”

Or perfunctory prose:
“She picked the orb from its branch.”

Truth is, they’re all options. You might decide the speed in which she picks it up isn’t important, or that you like your ‘purple prose’ far better. You might decide to mix and match. The point is, you not only have the right to decide for yourself, but what is right for one sentence may not be correct for the next, and whatever you chose last will influence what you choose after. They’re all tools to convey something specific, you just need to be clear if they’re doing what you want them to be and know that you have a whole slew of choices in your arsenal; it’s foolish to limit yourself just because your English teacher said so.

Natural cadence sometimes requires redundancy.

If you want to cut down on your wordcount, my first suggestion would be to go to prepositional phrases. They can be the most useless clarifiers on the face of the planet, but be careful, because many sentences sound weird without them.

I thought about it.

I trudged through the snow.

I tossed the trash out.

In context, often the preposition can be figured out without a second thought, and yet it will jar people out of the story because it sounds so odd. Not only that, but some things genuinely don’t mean the same to the native speaker: being unable to make a decision isn’t always the same as being unable to decide.

Cadence is strongly influenced by the number of words in a sentence, especially the ones that don’t seem to mean anything.

Most importantly, they help with emphasis.

As Provost said, having a long sentence will tell you something is important. It also works in reverse. Having a lot of long sentences and suddenly a short one will attract attention to it.

But the real thing any writer needs to keep in mind is how readers see words in text differently than we hear them spoken.

The oral speaker dictates importance and meaning through tone, but the reader constructs how something is being said simultaneously with what it means.

There are seven different interpretations behind the sentence: I never said she stole my money.

I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.

If you’re being accused of being a dense writer, this is the most common reason even over big words; the readers are struggling to know what words to emphasize and thus struggle to get the meaning.

We have a tentative hierarchy of assumption when it comes to meaning.

First is negatives: I am not stupid and I will never love you.
Second is adjectives: I ride a pink pony.
Third is verbs: I walk down the street.
Fourth is the object of the sentence: I know you.
Fifth is the object of a preposition: I fought mice in the kitchen.
Sixth is the adverb: I quickly laughed it off.
Seventh is the subject: I am happy.

Basically, if you have a sentence like, “I never said she stole my money,” the assumed point of it will be about the “never” and the first verb, i.e. “I never said that.”

There are many ways to toy with the assumed point, however. Part of it is merely by context:

“Wait… I thought she took your wallet!”

“I never said she stole my money.”

Some of it is by italics:

“I never said she stole my money.”

But there are a lot of tools at your disposal.

“My money wasn’t stolen.” Passive sentence, but more clear and makes the sentence about the money. In fact, the best way to drawing more emphasis on the noun (the money) is by making a weaker verb (was stolen).

“I never fucking said she stole my money!” By adding an adjective, it makes it clear where the emphasis goes.

The strength of the word is important to consider and can strongly influence the attention, no matter the part of speech.

“I really never said she stole my money,” works just as well as “fucking,” to cement the meaning behind the sentence, but “really,” being a weaker word, doesn’t detract from the verb and (its negative) while “fucking” somewhat changes the point (and definitely the mood.)

Weak verbs and strong verbs are often the most powerful weapons in your arsenal. This is why people have a thing against adverbs; adverbs don’t naturally draw attention to themselves, so if you put a weak verb with an adverb, the attention gets drawn to the noun, and if the noun’s not that interesting—which it often isn’t—it makes for a boring sentence: “He walked down the street quickly.”

The strongest word is street, which is a banal, everyday noun. And if that sentences isn’t that important to the paragraph, that might be exactly what you want. However, if the thing in the sentence is really important, using a weak verb-adverb combo can suggest that:

“There was an ugly chair.”

Unusual adjectives will snap a reader’s attention. “A mountainous chair rocked in the wind.” This is powerful, but one of the places you’ll get caught up in “trying too hard.”

What does this have to do with excess words? They are weak, ignorable words that enable the writer to control how people say things, what they pay attention to, and give invasive clues to what the author means.

I wasn’t the one who said she stole my money.
I never said that she was the one who stole my money.
I never actually said she stole my money.
I never said which idiot stole my money.
I never said she truly stole my money.
I never said the stolen money was mine.
It wasn’t money she stole from me.

“Was”s, “just”s, “that”s, “really”s, adverbs, passive-sentences—they have their purpose. Sometimes—often—they are overused attempts at stalling, and it is useful to challenge yourself to avoid them. But any writer worth his salt knows to be open to different techniques and doesn’t just slash at a new writer’s work without telling him why.

Microsoft Word used to be pretty good at making me second guess my grammar, keeping me up to date without getting lazy. This new program, however, sounds far too much like a frustrated writer who just got out of college and is attempting to prove himself. I don’t need “opinions” Microsoft, and that’s all these rules are. If you’re going to start critiquing my writing, you had better improve your algorithms, because I’m about to turn you off.

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