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Brevity

 


My writers' group (see earlier post) does each other the favor of helpful, hopeful editing of each others' work. We are like flies on cheesecake when it comes to spotting the creeping infiltration of passive voice, adverbs run amok and (a frequent failing of mine) schizophrenic changes in point-of-view that cause my reader to jump from the inside of one character's brain to another's in the middle of an chase scene.

Because we read aloud to each other, we seldom address a problem that plagues me whenever I pick up a pen: verbosity. Getting rid of it takes micro-editing, sentence by sentence, scouring prose for extra words, repetitious descriptions, unnecessary explanations. I've spent years writing for young people, who have little patience with self-indulgent authors. In a good kids' book, every word has to carry water; every sentence has to materially advance the plot or the point. This should apply to any book--and most certainly, every poem--but grown-ups may hang in there with a verbose writer. Kids'll bail. Wordiness is a mortal sin that will cause modern readers to jump ship.

I've examined my reasons for running on. One is failure to trust myself and/or my reader. A friend told me, "Mary, you write as if you're explaining everything to your Great-aunt Tillie." He was right. If a scene occurs in a living room, on a sofa, I'll mention the living room at least three times per paragraph, and the couch at least twice. If I don't go back and edit out these redundancies, my reader is annoyed. I've written in a way that demonstrates I don't think he can remember a sofa, or a room, for the length of a sentence.

There are over-careful redundancies like that, and then there are hyper-enthusiastic ones. The sofa was SOFT! And the couch was CUSHY! And the couch cushions were like PILLOWS! None of this excess would be necessary if my character just sat down on the sofa and nearly disappeared into the eiderdown cushions. I think readers appreciate an author who trusts them to get it.

And that's the base issue: that precious trust between author and reader. It's built with the solid materials of good plotting, delightful characters, compelling descriptions of setting. But the mortar in between these building blocks is savvy use of language. Good grammar, syntax and spelling are essential, but just as crucial is careful and judicious use of words. I've become so mindful of it, writing feels like being pursued by an ogre: if I pause too long on any thought with too little reason, the ogre of boredom will bite off the time my reader has allotted to my book. Disaster!



George MacDonald was a literary lion of the Victorian era, ranked in his day with Dickens and Twain, selling millions of books that weighed in at five to seven hundred pages. A brilliant thinker, he was revered by G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, who said "...I regarded him as my master." Yet MacDonald is relatively unknown today.

Why? Verbosity. A twentieth-century editor describes MacDonald's prose: "Sentences of one hundred to one hundred twenty words are common...These often contain half a dozen semicolons, several dashes, numerous commas, and a colon or two. He can use every punctuation mark in a single sentence!" And a single paragraph might run to five or six pages. MacDonald's style fit his thought, which was deep and not simplistic.

All of which was well-received in the Victorian era, when readers relished the prospect of a long fireside evening with a book that would stave off boredom for as long as possible by virtue of being as long as possible. It was a leisure activity for people who had never had leisure. But that was a fashion, (as today's break-neck brevity may also be.) I have come to love George MacDonald, reading the edited modern editions that break his sentences down into bite-size nuggets. As I read, I marvel that issues of style could relegate such a great writer to the backwaters of history.

I wonder about the relationship between truth and style. It's certainly possible for a skillful writer to write lies skillfully--but in MacDonald we see a deep thinker whose thoughts are buried in the linguistic equivalent of a corset and bustle. I ponder writers whose works have better stood the test of time--Mark Twain, Jane Austen, the King James Bible--and conclude that, if I have something to say, I would do well to say it succinctly. There is a relationship between having something to say and saying it well.


Back: Geo. MacDonald, A. J. Froude, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope
Front: W.M. Thackeray, Lord Macaulay, Lord Bulwer-Lytton, Thos. Carlyle, Charles Dickens

 

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