January 17, 2012

Write Clear, Not Fancy

I am a word lover. I'll freely admit. Aren't all writers? We roll words around our tongues like others do fine wine. We celebrate a particularly good arrangement of them with a fervor most people reserve for sports events and concerts. An apt description or nicely timed alliteration can set out hearts pounding. And while this is a wonderful thing when you make your living putting pen to paper, it can also be a handicap of sorts. Sometimes I think we writers want so badly to infuse their writing with interesting words and phrases that they use them way too liberally. Then instead of creating a scene the reader can really get behind and relate to, we end up drowning them in flowery pharses, esoteric vocabulary (now there's a doozy of a word), and way too many details.

 I'm as guilty as the next writer. I love to flex my descriptive muscles and arrange a sentence in a way that's both interesting and rhythmic, but what I'm starting to really understand is this: simple and clear trumps all the rest of that stuff every time. In other words, sometimes a dirty window is best described as a dirty window, not a pane of smooth glass sanded over with the dust and grit of a thousand days. Our whole goal is to get the reader into the story and to do that we must focus on characters and plot first. The fancy words and phrasing should be pulled out with caution. Use them only to help establish mood and really put us in the scene or the character's head so that the story is as vivid as possible. I want to be there with the character, feeling what he/she is feeling and sensing what he/she senses. I don't want to have to wade through a sea of words to figure out what's going on. So how does one accomplish this? I have a few ideas...

1. Be choosy with big vocabulary: use the words you think of first, not the ones you look up later in the thesaurus that sound smarter.

2. Get rid of as many phrases as you can without losing meaning. I mean instead of: The heart of the little girl beat rapidly, make it: The little girl's heart beat rapidly. Better, right?

3. Mow down your descriptions and pull out all the weeds. Whenever you choose to describe something in detail make sure it accomplishes something. If I'm looking at a man's face, I'm not going to notice every minute detail about it. I'll most likely be drawn to one or two things--and they can't be cliche or usual: the crescent shaped scar on his right cheekbone or the trail of freckles that march across his nose. I'll highlight what I feel lends to the character himself. An evil character might have a razor thin nose or conversely, a good character might have an endearing wayward curl that keeps dropping over his forhead and into one eye.

Am I saying get rid of all of the well turned bits and bobs in your story until you have out-Hemingwayed Hemingway? Perish the thought! Just be choosy. Sprinkle in only your most clever material and take out anything that muddies the waters. Easier said than done, right? But I'm fairly certain that if you get this one down, your writing will grow in leaps and bounds. I know mine has.


  1. This is so true, and sad to me in a way. Gone are the days of JAne Austen type books. At a writers conference once, one of the agents speaking said that want as little wordage as possible that will help move the plot of the book to the end. I still like my fun wordage thought:)

  2. Deana,
    It is kinda crazy how things have progressed, isn't it? I miss the wordier stuff too sometimes:)