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Are Your Words Working Hard Enough?


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jordan-whitfield-sm3Ub_IJKQg-unsplash.jpOver the last few years, I’ve come to seriously admire authors who write well-crafted, efficient sentences. I’m thinking of sentences that aren’t necessarily simple or grammatically perfect, but rather ones in which each word seems carefully chosen to pack the biggest punch. Take, for example, the first line from Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing:

The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.

Look at that sentence! Not a single word is wasted. Each one carries weight, fully embodying its own essence, coming together to form a backdrop you can feel on your skin in just sixteen words.

I think of sentences like these as IKEA storage units. Not a very romantic descriptor, I know, but bear with me: these sentences are make efficient, attractive use of limited space for maximum impact.

This type of writing is a matter of personal taste, not correctness. But if you, like me, tend to veer toward the verbose rather than the succinct, toward the Faulknerian rather than the Hemingwayan—and, most critically, you want to tone it down a notch or two—it’s surprisingly easy to build a self-editing habit into your writing practice.

Writing as Interior Design: Endless Metaphors Ahoy

If I were to describe my natural writing style in terms of interior décor, the words “eclectic” and “maximalism” come to mind. A less polite but more accurate phrase would be “a hot mess.”

I could spend hours wandering around an IKEA display floor. Unfortunately for me, translating my admiration of smart storage to my own home is more difficult. I’ve always wished that I could be one of those people to whom interior decorating and organization comes naturally. But as I am not, I recognize that that decorating my own home is going to take a lot more planning and forethought than for someone with a knack for design. As much as I may want to, I can’t just wander into a flea market and wander out with an armful of knickknacks that will look effortlessly put-together.

This, of course, assumes that I want my space to look effortlessly put-together. There are plenty of people who couldn’t care one way or the other what their “aesthetic” is, which is completely valid, and others for whom a mismatched eclectic is their aesthetic, which is also completely valid. Unfortunately, I like the IKEA aesthetic, yet have none of the inherent talent to replicate it.

[Extremely Barack Obama voice:] Now, let me be clear.

You know by now that I’m comparing interior décor styles to writing. But I am emphatically not suggesting that everyone should write like Hemingway, nor that simple sentences are inherently good writing. I am an absolute sucker for some lyrical prose, some wandering sentences, some poetic repetition and other literary devices. Just as the world would be boring if every house was Scandinavian minimalist, the world would also be boring if every sentence is always perfectly efficient.

That said, being prudent with words can be a useful skill to have in one’s back pocket, whether for professional purposes, to draw attention to a particularly intense scene, or just because you want to spice up your writing style a little. And despite being a chronic over-writer by nature, I’ve managed to turn concision into a sort of habit in my writing, almost by accident.

I used to work in a job (oh my God, Kelsey, another metaphor? Yes. I’m not sorry), where I had to write highly complex technical documents with very strict page limits. My company’s funding depended on those documents, so it was important that they not only be within the required page limit, but also clear, compelling, and understandable. As frustrating as it could sometimes be, those page limits forced me to learn how to prioritize ideas, boil them down to their essence, and trim fat from my writing while still remaining clear.

If you’ve stuck with me through these meandering metaphors: hi, mom.

For any writers who have skipped down to this section, here are a few self-editing tricks I picked up that have bled into my fiction writing.

  1. Search for phrases that can be shortened, especially those that use “of.” See if “a few feet of snow” can become “hip-deep snow.” “The parking lot of the Chili’s” might be “the Chili’s parking lot.” Even something as simple as changing “a forest of pines” to “a pine forest” can change a sentence’s momentum. Not every “of” phrase needs to be reordered, especially if it goes against the flow your sentence (like the “of” in this sentence). But you can use this strategy to speed up or slow down the reader’s momentum depending on the tone you want to convey.
  2. Find nouns you can turn into verbs. “The sky was covered in a blanket of clouds” might become “Clouds blanketed the sky.” (The same principle applies to changing passive voice to active, but it’s easier for me to pick out nouns that I might turn into verbs, rather than thinking about whether a sentence is passive). “Piles of laundry sat on the every surface” could instead be “Laundry piled upon every available surface.” Using more active, evocative verbs can make your writing stand out.
  3. Set yourself an arbitrary page limit that seems impossible to meet, and then edit your work down to meet it. This is probably not something you want to do with an entire novel, but try it with a chapter or scene. I say “page limit” rather than “word count” because I’ve noticed that I’m more likely to be brutal in my cutting in a way that forces concision, rather than simply rewording sentences with fewer words. There is a difference between “saying the same thing in fewer words” and “choosing to only say what is necessary to understand the point.”

To illustrate this point, I’ve taken a few sentences from one of my own works in progress and edited them for once word count, and again for the arbitrary limit of two lines. Is there one you think is stronger?

Original sentence: Jane is lost. The basement beneath the bioethics building is labyrinthine, with rows of identical doors lining tiled hallways that smell of chemicals and lemons. She’s stumbled into a classroom. It’s dark except for a single point of blue light winking upon the projector. (44 words)

Reduced word count: Jane is lost. This basement is labyrinthine, rows of identical doors lining tiled chemical- and lemon-scented hallways. She’s stumbled into a dark classroom, the only light a single point of blue upon the projector. (34 words)

Space limitation: Jane is lost. Stumbling over cracked, wet tile, she passes endless winding corridors lined with reinforced steel doors, and finally dashes into a pitch dark classroom.

  1. Write some microfiction. I’ve written before about the benefits of writing microfiction for those of us who have trouble narrowing our focus, but I’m going to harp on it again. Try to write 100 words that tell a complete story, where a character changes between the first and hundredth word. This is more of an exercise than a piece of self-editing advice, but sometimes even the act of sitting down and trying to write a 100-word story seems to help my brain make the neural pathways I’m needing in my longer work.

Have you ever been accused of being a little verbose? If so, did you embrace your verbosity, or try to make some changes? What other tips might you have for a writer trying to write more concisely?

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About Kelsey Allagood

Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer, occasional photographer, and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. Her photography is forthcoming in RESURRECTION mag. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry.

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