An Economy of Words
Let’s face an ugly truth – we writers are not unique. Indeed, every person on the planet is a storyteller. From the day we learnt to express ourselves, we began telling stories (with ourselves as the hero, of course), and we will continue to be storytellers all of our lives. Storytelling is an innate part of being human; it’s how we learn, how we teach, how we convey history, and our hopes for the future.
So, if everyone is a storyteller, what sets a writer apart? Well, many things but the thing I want to talk about here is economy. Good writers know how to budget their words; they understand the benefits of crisp sentences, of precise language, and of presenting ideas in their most straightforward form.
I have a confession to make: I am a purple writer – i.e. I overwrite to the point of cruelty. Luckily, I am a ruthless editor of my own work and a perfectionist, so I don’t generally inflict my cruelty on anyone other than myself , but it took the patience and wisdom of my writing mentors to teach me to be economical with my words. Today, I’d like to share two of their most significant lessons for good writing with you.
Rule #1 - Less is Best (LIB)
This is one of the best pieces of advice that I received from my mentors. As the name implies, this ‘rule’ is about saying more with less, which is challenging but the resulting writing is rewarding for the writer and a pleasure for the reader.
LIB can be applied to writing in a number of ways, including conveying aspects of character through clothing, dialogue and actions, avoiding (unintentional) repetition of actions, descriptions or gestures, and focusing on significant details in description. For now, however, let’s concentrate on the most basic use of LIB: the reduction of words. Here’s an example sentence:
Damian sat in his favourite oak lounge chair, looking into the fire that glowed with warm embers, and thought long and hard about his wife and the secret he had just discovered that had filled his heart with dread and fear.
Applying the rule of LIB, we would look for the most important ideas in this sentence, consolidate them and ditch whatever we can leave to the reader’s imagination:
Damian hunched in the chair, his unfocused gaze on the dying fire, while his wife’s secret filled his heart with dread.
So, why have I made these decisions? Let’s break it down:
Damian sat in his favourite oak lounge chair… I changed ‘sat’ to ‘hunched’ because this word evokes an emotion; it shows us something about what Damian is feeling. I removed ‘favourite oak’ because these are unnecessary details. What does it matter if this is Damian’s favourite chair? We could also argue that, given human nature, it is likely Damian would gravitate towards his favourite chair, making the mention of ‘favourite’ irrelevant. Finally, how does knowing the chair is made from oak ADD to the story? It doesn’t, so it can deleted. ‘lounge’ is also superfluous because, unless the fireplace is in another room, the reader will assume it is in the lounge room.
…, looking into the fire that glowed with warm embers, and thought long and hard about his wife … I replaced ‘looking into the fire’ with ‘unfocused gaze’ because ‘looking’ is an overused action, while ‘unfocused’ infers that Damian is consumed by his thoughts, and also avoids the ‘long and hard’ cliché. ‘glowed with warm embers’ is stating the obvious (embers do glow and are warm, and therefore, these details don’t ADD to the scene), but more importantly, ‘glowed’ and ‘warm’ contradict the mood of the sentence, which is unsettled/uncertain. ‘dying fire’ is a deliberate choice and is meant as a clue for the reader about the secret (which is that the wife is dying) but could also be a metaphor for the status of the relationship between Damian and his wife (particularly if the secret was about infidelity).
…wife and the secret he had just discovered that had filled his heart with dread and fear. ‘wife’s secret’ shortcuts the sentence, making it tighter, while ‘he had just discovered’ is removed because it is redundant; if Damian is thinking about his wife’s secret then clearly he must have discovered it. ‘had’ (x2), ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘fear’ are redundant. Fear and dread have similar meanings, therefore, we only need one of these emotions, and ‘dread’ is the stronger of the two, which is why it has remained.
This point brings us to the second rule of word economy.
Rule #2 - Keep it Simple (KIS)
LIB and KIS go hand in hand, but also have their individual nuances. KIS is about writing in a simple, clear and concise manner to ensure the reader receives our meaning in an unadulterated way. However, we mustn’t confuse ‘simple’ with ‘simplistic’ – we should never ‘write down’ to our readers (another good ‘rule’ from my mentors), who will invariably be as intelligent as us and maybe more so. Rather we should respect our readers enough to write with depth, complexity and clarity.
So what does KIS look like? Here are a few examples (by emerging writers) of overwriting and their simplified versions:
He was bleeding, maroon droplets contaminated the once virgin snow, but under the pale moonlight, it was black as the sky above.
He was bleeding; the droplets were black against the moonlit snow.
The coolness of the afternoon pushes itself through my coat and makes me shiver. I pull it closer to my body and hug it there, crossing my arms over my chest.
The coolness of the afternoon makes me shiver and I pull my coat closer, hugging it to my chest.
I hold the gun in my hand. I aim it at the man in front of me. The man who will die with no dignity.
I aim the gun at the man in front of me, who will die without dignity.
The day that the skies opened up was the day that my childhood ended. The day that the clouds parted, spewing bombs in bucket loads and my mother risked her life for me, a human offering to the gods.
The day the bombs fell was the day my childhood ended. That day, my mother was sacrificed to the gods of war to save my life.
By simplifying the construction of these sentences and unpacking some of the ideas, we make their meaning clearer and therefore, more accessible to the reader.
Of course, my mentors were not the first advocates of LIB and KIS. George Orwell’s Six Rules for Good Writing is often quoted as a framework for achieving economy with our words:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Or to put it another way:
Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.
William Safire, Great Rules of Writing
The Unnecessary, the Unremarkable, and the Significant:
A final approach to achieving economy with our words is to be aware of when we are adding unnecessary or unremarkable details. In short story, these will usually involve a character’s physical appearance (eye colour, hair colour, height etc. – if they don’t ADD to the story, leave them out and let the reader use their imagination instead), or over-description of actions/setting. It’s important to remember that good writing leaves space for the reader to imagine into the story too. We don’t need to give our readers everything, just enough to help them see what we see as we are imagining our stories.
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King (one of my ‘absent’ mentors) discusses the act of ‘telepathy’ that occurs between a writer and a reader, and he provides the following example:
Look — here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8 (2000, p.97).
In this act of description, King gives us the main details of what he imagined as he wrote this passage. As he points out, the finer details (the shade of red; the shape of the cloth; the material from which the cage is made; the size of the rabbit) are left to the reader because we don’t have to agree on these specific. What he does want us to agree upon – the significant detail – is the number 8 marked on the rabbit’s back.
When we use our words with economy, we leave out the unnecessary (a good way to recognise these details is to ask: why does the reader need to know this?), and we allow the reader to fill in the unremarkable (the colour of the lounge, the type of wood the door is made from, the height of the window, etcetera etcetera), but we make damn sure they see what is significant – a white rabbit with a blue number 8 on its back. Can you see it?
Happy (economical) Writing,