Monday, January 6, 2014

Delia Latham: Words on Display

And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.
~1 Corinthians 9:25

Merriam-Webster's definition of "temperate":  1 : marked by moderation: as keeping or held within limits; not extreme or excessive.

Sometimes less is more.

Unlike many familiar phrases, this one is true almost every time. (I have to admit, I don’t think that way when I’m trying to stretch too few dollars to make ends meet. In that case, more would definitely be more.)

But we’re not talking about money, or beauty, or weight loss. We’re talking about writing, and with that topic in mind, less is more.

Write tight. Be succinct. Make it snappy and make it count.

I could think of a dozen more ways to say the same thing, but it would defeat my purpose.

Want to know why editors slap our wrists for using too many adjectives and adverbs? Because they clutter, without serving any real purpose. They are crutches, and depending on them keeps us from making the effort to write better, tighter, cleaner prose.

Know when enough is enough.

We’ve all known people who own a houseful of expensive things. Beautiful china and crystal. Figurines, paintings, the best furniture—costly collectibles everywhere one looks. Curio cabinets and china closets line the walls of their homes, each of them literally packed with beautiful items.

The result?

Visitors see nothing but clutter. The sheer volume of stuff overwhelms them—and destroys the intended effect.  A savvy displayer would clear off an entire shelf for one exquisite piece, knowing that a masterpiece shows best when it stands alone.

The same principle can be applied to writing. While adjectives and adverbs are useful when used sparingly, most of the time they are unnecessary excess. They turn what we intend as literary works of art into meaningless jumbles of words.
  • Example 1:
The beautiful, raven-haired princess strolled happily along the lush, green banks of a dancing, sun-dappled brook, enjoying the peaceful, pastoral view.

Beautiful imagery? Hardly! It’s pure excess. (To say nothing of the repetition of two descriptive adjectives preceding each of the four nouns. Why two every time? If you must use adjectives, vary the number, especially in successive sentences. Otherwise the rhythm becomes sing-songy.)

Better yet, eliminate some of those adjectives. Why force a reader to weed through an over-abundance of description to find the core message?

  • Example 2 (fix):
Princess Rowena strolled beside the brook. Sunlight danced on the water, turning its surface into a thousand jewel-like prisms. A lush blanket of grass hugged her bare feet. For the first time since her escape from the palace, she smiled, soothed by the sound of the water as it bounced off boulders and splashed against smaller rocks. Peace at last.

Example 1 uses nine descriptors in a single sentence. Example 2 uses only four descriptors in five sentences. It doesn’t eliminate descriptive words, but it does make them count. Breaking up that original bulky sentence gives the reader’s eyes a rest, and her mind an opportunity to catch up. Throwing aside the crutch of descriptive words also forces more action. Example 2 conveys the same meaning, but shows the reader what’s happening instead of telling her - adjective by stale adjective.

  • Example 3:
“I don’t like it.” Mikie said, wrinkling her freckled, turned-up nose as she pushed the plate of sticky pasta aside and fixed her big blue eyes across the small table, where flickering candlelight turned Carter’s normally handsome face into a shadowy monster’s mask.

  1. Head hopping. Mikie can’t see her freckles, her nose, or her eyes, so their description should be left for another time and place—unless we’re in Carter’s POV. If so, then we have the same problem: Carter can’t see his own distorted face…but we’ll discuss POV another day.
  2. Run-on sentence. (Please. Give your reader a break!)
  3. And, of course, our pet peeve of the day: overuse of descriptors.
  • Example 4 (Fix):
“I can’t eat this.” Mikie wrinkled her nose in disgust. “It’s sticky.”

Carter’s eyebrows rose in surprise—or was it irritation? 

Mikie ignored the niggling guilt, knowing her plate of pasta cost more than he earned in two hours. Lost in the perfection of his face, she almost forgot to breathe. 

Somewhere in the room, a door opened and shut. On the table between them, candlelight flickered and waned, then settled into a steady flame. As she watched, mesmerized, the play of light and shadow twisted her husband’s features into a demonic visage.

See the difference? While eliminating the descriptors sometimes lengthens the actual word count, it produces more effective writing.

The above examples are simplistic to an extreme. Still, I hope they demonstrate the benefits of clearing the clutter.
As Christians, we “strive for the mastery.” (Read that, “shoot for perfection.”) We may never attain it, but it should be our goal. Reaching the master level in any area requires a starting point of moderation and temperance.

With the clutter pared away, we might reveal a masterpiece.

Delia Latham
© 2010

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