Three Ways to Pare Down Your Prose
When my son was three, he felt that there was no work of art that could not be improved by MORE STICKERS, MORE COLORS, and MORE GLITTER. Because who doesn’t like colorful and sparkly? Thing is, you and I both know that a little glitter is good, but a pile of glitter glopped on top of half a bottle of Elmer’s glue . . . not so much.
In a desperate attempt to get students to write with any flair at all, many language arts teachers push what’s easiest for kids to understand: lots of adjectives, adverbs, and thesaurus usage–the puffy stickers, sparkle markers, and glitter shakers of writing. As kids, we were rewarded for modifier and thesaurus abuse because at least we were using adjectives. We were told that this was good writing, when in fact it was just more writing. More glitter. And we can learn all the fancy writing techniques in the world, but if the bones of the writing–the sentences–are hidden under piles of puffy adverbs and sparkly synonyms, anything we do will only make things more . . . more.
So without further ado, three ways to scrape off the excess so you can see the shape of the sentences underneath, and help them become what they really want to be.
1. Adjectives and adverbs: Less is more.
Everyone I know was taught in elementary school to use lots of adjectives and adverbs in “descriptive writing.” It’s counterintuitive—and difficult—to shake our dependence on these so-called “describing words.” But it’s essential because they’re nearly always too much. If you use the right nouns and verbs, you won’t need as many adjectives.
It’s the difference between entering a room and seeing this cat:
Sleeping lazily in the warm, bright morning sun was a cat with soft gold and brown striped fur.
And this one:
A tabby cat basked in the morning sun.
2. Verbs and Nouns: Say exactly—and only—what you mean.
The thesaurus is not a tool to vary-ify your vocabulary (yes, I made that word up). It is a tool to refine it. For example, chortle, giggle, guffaw, and snicker are not interchangeable. They have very specific meanings and should be used in very specific contexts. (And often, laugh will do just fine.) Also, try not to use an adverb with a powerful verb; guffawing loudly is redundant. So is chortling softly.
Same with nouns. If your characters are escaping pirates in a dinghy, don’t call it a yacht, a schooner, or a skiff. If saying “dinghy” twelve times in twenty sentences feels repetitive (hint: it is), maybe you don’t need some of those sentences.
3. Unless you are a certified master, go easy on the metaphors.
As a person who draws hearts in the margins every time I come across a lovely metaphor, it pains me to say this. But sometimes it’s necessary. Especially if the metaphor is old and worn out. Let it retire (metaphorically) and spend the rest of its metaphorical days sipping metaphorical lemonade on its metaphorical front porch.
No metaphor at all is better than a bad one. I mean. Does Jane Austen tell us that Mr. Darcy’s eyes are the color of a sparrow’s wing (or tree bark, or a well-cooked steak)? No. I’m not even sure she tells us they’re brown.
I do love a good metaphor, though. Great metaphors can (help) make a book shine. Stay tuned for metaphor madness, coming soon. Well. Soonish.