Why We’re Not Writing Succinctly—and What to Do About It

October 23, 2018 § 9 Comments

By Mathina Calliope

Writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent elimination.
-Louise Brooks

I know I should write concisely. Plowing through bloated prose, I’ve certainly wished other authors had. I’ve silently struck needless words and cursed the writer for lacking the courtesy to clean up after him- or herself.

I also struggle to get my own word counts down. As with many things in life, it’s easier to spot a speck than pull out a plank.

At some point in our writing trajectories, a well-meaning person read our draft and said it needed “more details.” Yes, a well-chosen detail brings a scene alive and puts readers into the action. Unfortunately, many of us, perhaps too young to grasp what details were, simplified this advice to more words.

Later, we come across Strunk & White’s “Omit needless words” and Mark Twain’s “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” and we may try to unlearn wordiness.

This is difficult.

But why? Shouldn’t it be easier to write fewer words than more? Let’s take a look at some threats to succinctness and try to understand their source—and how to eliminate them.

First drafts are where we figure it out.
If I had a nickel for every time I wrote a sentence and immediately wrote another one containing the exact same idea, I’d have many nickels. Writing is not stenography—it’s not transferring neat, insightful, and lovely ideas from our brains to the page. Writing is the messy process of wrestling with those ideas, taming them into insights. For me, that’s trying out an idea in one sentence, then explaining it in the next. The idea forms as I write, so the second sentence feels like additional information. It’s not until I reread that I can see the redundancy. Sometimes I can strike the first sentence altogether. Sometimes it’s the second sentence that goes. And sometimes half the idea is in one and half in the other, so I combine and tighten.

Succinct writing takes time.
Blaine Pascal, John Locke, and Henry David Thoreau are all credited with versions of “I’m sorry this is so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

First drafts are where we work things out. That takes X length of time. First drafts plus re-reading and revising to eliminate redundancy takes X plus Y length of time.

We might not have that time; worse, we might not realize how much it matters. Smart readers, who don’t need to be told anything twice, can spot redundancy from a page away. They won’t tolerate much. As writers, we have to put our work aside for a bit, make it unfamiliar, then reread and ruthlessly delete anything superfluous.

We don’t realize we’re being wordy.
We may write our first drafts conversationally. The advantage of this is accessibility and a natural tone. The disadvantage is that speech is seldom succinct. Word padding that may not inconvenience listeners still weighs down prose.

We think long sentences sound good.
But they usually don’t. Long sentences work only when the complexity of their ideas warrants them. Best case, an unnecessarily long sentence confuses and tires readers. Worst case, it conveys uncertainty or even ignorance; readers see right through the writer’s attempt to appear to know a lot.
It’s not easy being brief. But it’s important—for the clarity of your ideas and for the love of your reader.

So the next time you are ready to submit a piece of writing to a reader, an editor, or a friend, remember these words of Dr. Seuss: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

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Mathina Calliope is a writer, editor, teacher, and writing coach. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post’s Magazine and Outlook sections, NPR’s Morning Edition, Prevention, the Manifest-Station, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere. Currently she is finishing a memoir, Deprivation Vacation, about hiking the Appalachian Trail at 43 as a way to step cold turkey out of her comfort zone. @mathinacalliope IG: mathinacalliope

Reading Like a Writer: Sustaining an Image

June 5, 2018 § 7 Comments

By Jennifer Berney

“What does it mean when your body cannot be one simple thing?” Gabrielle Bellot asks, in her essay “Volcano Dreams,” published recently in Unruly Bodies (a web anthology curated by Roxane Gay).

“Volcano Dreams” opens with an anecdote about a sexual encounter in which the author is pursued by an old acquaintance. Though the acquaintance is clearly flirting, the author questions his seriousness, explaining that her identity as a trans woman often renders her sexually invisible.

I was disinterested and yet vaguely, stupidly desired his desire, as if that would validate something of my womanhood—no but yes, an in-between uncertainty, like the grey smoky nightmares of a slumbering volcano.

This connection between yearning body and volcano, is an image that drives the rest of the essay. In fact, once the encounter ends with the acquaintance’s abrupt rejection of the author’s body—only halfway through the essay—Bellot sets aside the tools of scene and story. The rest of the essay is grounded solely in image and metaphor, in volcano and sea. She develops and balances these images:

My body, I sometimes think, like many bodies, is like Dominica’s. Waitukubuli, the Caribs declared our island before the colonists came, a mountainous world named corporeally: Tall is her body. An unruly island, rainforest one moment, melancholy ramshackle zinc roofs rattling under the metallic drums of rain the next… beaches of nothing but gray stones a hurricane hurled with its roiling rolling arms like a furious crazed cricket bowler, a rough Atlantic beyond the fins of sharks or whales where fishermen in bright-painted dinghies occasionally venture under the spells of their insomniac mermaid dreams and never return. Dominica’s body changes grandly, wider in potential than a Sargasso Sea, yet she is also one defined and whole.

When I left this essay, I found myself haunted by these landscapes, as if I had dreamt them, and as if that dream had lodged itself somewhere between my conscious and subconscious.

I can’t quite explain the meaning of these images because, as Bellot says about the body, they “cannot be one simple thing.” I can tell you that the volcano conjures both anger and desire, that the sea evokes both fluidity and grief. But I can also tell you that these landscapes hold more than that.

Bellot told me these images came to her in a conversation with a friend:

We began talking about volcanoes, and then the conversation shifted, but when I went home, I began to think again of volcanoes as a metaphor for the body, and, in particular, the special, uncomfortable uncertainty and false sense of security a sleeping volcano can present. A body can seem calm and quiet, yet be roiling on the inside, ready to burst. Volcanoes destroy and rebuild. I realised that my experience of the body was connected to that sort of unstable, unpredictable imagery. (I also grew up in sight of one of Dominica’s many dormant volcanoes, and the apocalyptic tales of Mount Pelee’s eruption in nearby Martinique at the start of the twentieth century was one I thought of often as a young adult.) I’ve also long been drawn to the ocean and to the colour blue. Both have long histories for me. A family member was swept by a riptide into the ocean and drowned before I was born, a story my mother repeated to me many times when we drove past a certain white estuary that had become known for its fatal pull. And ‘the sea is history,’ as Derek Walcott put it, a place as much of life as uncountable deaths from the horrors of the transatlantic trade. So the ocean was inevitable as an image for the body as a site of contradiction and open-ended possibility.

Somehow, all of the associations that Bellot describes here reached me as a reader. In one short essay, I absorbed pieces of histories and landscapes, and connected those pieces to the author’s experience of body, of moving between conflict and fluidity.

What makes these images work? It’s not their simplicity but rather their expansiveness. Bellot does not offer simple correlations, such as heart = love or bird = freedom. At the same time, the images aren’t arbitrary or random. As Bellot makes clear in her commentary, they are carefully, lovingly chosen and rendered, and interact with the essay’s topic in meaningful ways. Like the body, these landscapes contain multitudes.

The lesson I glean from Bellot’s work is to fully commit to the images that choose me. If an image truly belongs in a work, then it deserves some oxygen. When given room to grow, the right set of images can do more than enhance a piece; they can drive it.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Five Quick Fixes To Make Your Essay Better Right Now

February 1, 2018 § 27 Comments

patent diagram of a roller skateNot “feeling it,” but need to get some writing in? Don’t have time for a long sit at the coffee shop, but you might have fifteen minutes before carpool? Technical fixes are the way to go.

1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:

  1. Open Advanced Find and Replace
  2. Check the box for Wildcards On
  3. Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
  4. Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
  5. Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.

2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.

I never considered that he would run away

I never considered he would run away.

3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.

Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.

Pat was also kind of mean.

When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:

Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog. 

For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:

Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.  

4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.

We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.

Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.

5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.

Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.

Happy writing–with or without inspiration.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Stop Making Sense

November 21, 2017 § 27 Comments

Have we got an offer for you!

Black and white picture of David Byrne dancing in a boxy oversized suit from the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense

How did I get here?

Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?

This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.

Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.

Within the same sentence.

Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:

He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.

Tell it once:

His hands were gnarled.

Better yet, show it in an action:

He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.

He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.

Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:

Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”

Show it once:

Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”

(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)

Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:

I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.

 Pare it down:

I texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

I thought it was very clear.

Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”

As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?

But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.

This also applies to “filtering”:

I looked at James as he stomped over.

I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.

I heard him shout my name.

“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”

James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”

Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.

If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”

It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.

_______________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her bimonthly travel and writing newsletter here.

Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)

A Brief Guide to Essays

August 1, 2017 § 26 Comments

We’re ready for our prose poem!

The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”

Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!

It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:

Lyric

They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.

***

Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.

***

Not this one.

 

Prose Poem

Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.

 

Collage

Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.

***

I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?

***

In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.

***

The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”

***

In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.

***

The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.

 

Braided Essay

You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.

***

Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.

***

As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.

The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writer’s voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.

***

Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.

***

Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.

***

Some nice braided essays:

The Search for Marvin Gardens by John McPhee

Buzzards by Lee Zacharias

***

Seriously. The strands have to repeat.

 

Hermit Crab

It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.

1) Choose an existing form, such as guidebook, grocery list, rejection letter or recipe.

2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.

3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.

4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.

5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.

6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

 

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