Today’s post is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.
I’ll give you twenty seconds to skim these paragraphs and tell me which one exhibits stronger, more engaging writing:
The hottest month in Ayemenem would certainly have to be May. Each and every day is long and exceedingly humid. The river starts to dry up and black crows, which sit in trees that are a dusty-colored green, eat golden, sun-ripened mangoes. It is a time when red bananas as well as plump, yellow, odd-smelling jackfruits are starting to get significantly riper. Flies buzz around and around in the sweet-smelling air. Then, because they don’t understand what glass is, they fly right into the windows and are killed by the impact.
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
Even though I wrote Paragraph A, I hope you hated it. It’s my decidedly unimpressive 91-word rewrite of Arundhati Roy’s arresting beginning to her novel The God of Small Things. Roy’s version, at 55 words, is undoubtedly cleaner, tighter, and more powerful.
A lower word count doesn’t always point to superiority, but wordiness is best avoided, and it’s the main culprit lurking behind my rewrite’s failure.
Are you wordy? Recognize the signs
Scan your writing for the following symptoms of wordiness:
- “Being” verbs. You’ll have to use them sometimes, of course, but they often slow the pace of a sentence. Compare “still, dustgreen trees” to “trees that are a dusty-colored green.” My paragraph contains seven “being verbs”; Roy’s just two. Highlight the “being” verbs on a page of your WIP and try to cut them in half.
- Passive constructions. Passive voice, which occurs when the subject of the sentence receives action rather than performing it, inevitably clogs sentences. Compare the flies that “are killed by the impact” versus the flies that simply “die.”
- Filler words. We writers love words…maybe a little too much. Are all of our words necessary? My rewrite quickly bogs itself down under the weight of ” would certainly have to be,” “each and every,” “around and around,” and “it is a time when”. Play a game with your WIP: take a few sentences and try to rewrite them to be half as long, a third as long, even just an eighth as long. Experiment with what words you can cut without losing meaning.
- Clichés. We’ve read these so many times that when they pop up, it’s easy to read right over them. Except for the unnecessary space they consume in our writing, it’s almost like they don’t exist for all the impact they have on readers. My rewrite’s description of “sun-ripened” mangoes and “sweet-smelling” air are not only longer, but lamer, than Roy’s.
- Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. When it comes to description, sometimes less is more. My use of “exceedingly” and “significantly” doesn’t help readers visualize the gravity of the description, and the ” plump, yellow, odd-smelling” jackfruits might just have gone a bit overboard; Roy’s startlingly clear verb (“bursts”) packs more punch.
Stop wordiness before it starts
Editing out unnecessary words is great, but can we train ourselves not to include them at all? When meaning infuses each word, we’re less likely to use too many. Consider minimizing unnecessary words by regularly employing the following language devices:
- Fresh verbs. Roy’s river “shrinks”; her crows “gorge”; her jackfruits “burst”; her flies “stun themselves.” These verbs aren’t typical; they also require less elaboration than my ho-hum “starts to dry up,” “eat,” “starting to get significantly riper,” and “buzz around and around.” Yawn.
- Active voice. Roy’s repeated subject-verb sentence construction lends immediacy to her writing. Your sentence structure can vary from this, of course, but putting subjects in charge of their verbs trims the word count and reads smoothly.
- Stark contrast. Moving quickly from one opposite description to another or juxtaposing contrasting images economizes words and efficiently establishes action or setting. Roy’s days are “long,” but the river “shrinks.” Birds “gorge” in “still” trees. Those trees are “dustgreen” while the bananas are “red.” Her flies first “hum,” then “die.” All in 55 words.
- Varied sentence length. Achieve unique rhythm by alternating short and long sentences. We’re ready to digest Roy’s “Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air” in part because we’ve just been slammed with the fast– and effective– “Jackfruits burst.” In my rewrite, the sentences are all about the same length; there’s no break.
- Unusual description. When was the last time you thought of those flies wriggling on their backs on your windowsill as “fatly baffled?” A summer month as “hotly brooding?” Descriptions that make readers pause, think, and wonder need not be long; their strangeness carries the writing.
How do you avoid wordiness in your writing? What strategies do you have in place for editing wordiness out of your work, or for writing efficiently in the first place?