A Problem with Brevity
September 16, 2016 § 20 Comments
by Liz Blocker
The writing advice guides all agree on one point: it’s essential to find your own style. This is all well and good, except that in its natural, unchecked state, my style is a catastrophic landslide of prose.
In other words, I am incapable of being brief.
When I write, sentences pour out in long unraveling skeins, or in a flood of white-capped, roiling snow-melt. Why use one metaphor when you can use two, or three? My word counts rise in a predictable pattern: first I worry about keeping to my target, then I wonder how flexible that target is, and then I realize I’ve written enough for five pieces, not one.
This problem has financial implications, too. It was one of these occasions that made me first wonder if this issue of mine was more than just a cute idiosyncrasy. My wife and I were working with a lawyer to draw up our estate plans: wills, healthcare proxies, power of attorney, and all the rest of the uplifting documents that tie the loose ends of your early and tragic death into a neat little bow. The lawyer sent us a draft, and I wrote an email in response. My wife peered over my shoulder as I was writing.
“Do you really need to explain why we don’t like that sentence?” Jen asked.
“Well, I want her to cut it,” I said.
“Can’t you just tell her to cut it?”
I was horrified. “Without explaining it to her first?”
Jen sighed, and plucked the lawyer’s last invoice from a pile of papers. “She charges $300 an hour,” she said. “That explanation is going to cost us $20.”
I deleted the sentence without a further word of protest.
Soon after, a fiction editor I’d hired recommended I turn up the volume on my inner critic. Probably she was tired of reminding me that I didn’t need to use three adjectives in every sentence, just because three is such a magical, intriguing, enticing number in storytelling. So, for a while, I tried to stem the rising flood. I edited as I wrote, cutting semi-colons in great swaths, reaping the harvest of repetitive synonyms. This strategy resulted in an electronic barn full of dead words, and a few very naked, rather dull pieces.
Inner critics are for losers, I thought, and silenced my own with a sledgehammer.
The result was more mountainous heaps of superfluous words. One night, I realized it had taken me five times longer to cut a piece than it had to write it. Two hours of my “natural” style, and ten of painstaking and painful work to slice the narrow, winding, lovely sentences into bare expressways. This was not a small problem; the piece was only supposed to be 800 words. Imagine how long a 3,000 word essay might take.
Shudder-worthy, isn’t it? I knew I had to do something drastic. Wasting my precious writing time on cutting was stupid, not to mention deadly boring.
Resigned, I went back to where I’d left my inner critic, lying in a puddle of her own red ink.
“Wake up,” I whispered, nudging her shoulder with my toe.
“No,” she said, keeping her eyes resolutely closed.
She opened her eyes long enough to give me a withering glare. Typical, I thought.
“Fine,” she said, “But I’m taking the sledgehammer.”
It wasn’t an easy truce. Although I wanted to change, the desire wasn’t as strong as the need to make sure I had explained everything in excruciating detail. My inner critic shrieked that I was obsessive and anxious, and bashed words into smithereens with the sledgehammer; I retaliated by stealing the sledgehammer back. More ink spilled. Violence was threatened.
And yet we’ve made progress. This piece only took me three times as long to cut as it did to write, which, as I’ve reminded my critic, is a three-hundred percent improvement! I would say more about that, but I’m out of space.
So I’ll just say, it’s an ongoing process. And that I –
– have to stop. Never mind.
Liz Blocker‘s essays have been published in a number of magazines and journals, including The Toast, Brain, Child, and The Dallas Review. She lives in Boston, MA. When she’s not wrangling her infant twins, she’s writing, reading, running, or working as a massage therapist – or some combination thereof.