Thursday, October 18, 2012

CLEAN WRITING--and I don't mean "Sweet"

Writing science research papers taught me the process of clean writing—manuscripts free of too many useless words. "Just the facts, ma'am." As a result, my first fiction manuscript was a failure. The editor told me my writing sounded like a textbook. That sort of hurt, but the statement opened a floodgate of words that's still gushing. I could use adjectives! And adverbs! And descriptions! But also…too many useless words and phrases.  

Still, I absolutely love to embellish sentences with adjectives, adverbs, and well…a long list of writing errors. If I remove the useless words in the previous sentence, I think it reads like a textbook. Where is that fine line?

AVOID USELESS WORDS: My favorite topic. We consider good writing concise, vigorous, and active. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, as a machine should contain no extra parts. Fine idea. But an automobile is a machine. The first cars were little more than a buggy with an engine attached. They were unattractive and uncomfortable. The automobiles today contain endless useless parts, but we buy them because of those extra appealing parts.  

I do agree, though, certain useless words or phrases need to go.
1.  "there is no doubt but that" should be "no doubt" or "doubtless"
2.  "this is a subject that" should be "this subject"
3.  "the reason why is that" should be "because"
4.  "owing to the fact that" should be "since" or "because"
5.  "he is a man who" should be "he"

AVOID USE OF QUALIFIERS: A qualifier is a word or a word group that limits the meaning of another word or word group. The worst offenders are rather, very, little, and pretty.

"I should do pretty well on the exam, for I am a rather brilliant student, but if I make very many mistakes, I'll try to do a little better."

AVOID LOOSE SENTENCES: A loose sentence is one consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative. Too many loose sentences in one paragraph will sound mechanical and singsong. The compound sentence is the framework of writing, when used wisely and sparingly.

Read the next paragraph very fast:

"The last concert of the season was given last night, and the hall was filled to capacity. Jane Doe was the soloist, and John Smith accompanied her on the piano. She proved to be quite capable, while he performed admirably. The concert series has been successful, and the committee was gratified. The committee will plan for next year's programs, and they will offer an equally attractive program."

Did you hear the sing-song effect? Blech!

Today's subject appeared because of the editing processes I've undergone. A kind editor—in so many words--told me: You begin too many sentences with well, now, so, or why. In some cases, these words are acceptable, especially when included in dialogue. Southern people talk this way, but in narration, use sparingly.

This made sense to me, because when I talk with a friend—on-line or face to face—those little words pop up all the time.

"What did she say when you said her hair was orange?"

"Well, first she stared. Then her eyes sort of bugged out, and before I knew it, why, she started bawling."

"Oh, my goodness. Now, here's what you should have said, darlin'. You just do not want to make her any madder."

"So, what should I have said?"

And so, well, I need to bring this post to a halt. I need to make a little lunch, because the fact is that my husband is mowing this morning, and he'll be starving. There's no doubt, though, that he won't say an unkind word to me if lunch if just a little late.
(if you can edit this paragraph correctly, you will receive an A+)



Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas
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  1. Celia,

    Thank you for the lesson. I enjoy learning new methods to improve my writing.

    Below is a list of useless words and phrases I found a few years ago.

    Change: To:
    "at this point in time" "now"
    "in the event that" "if"
    "make an effort to" "try to"
    "for the purpose of" "to"
    "red in color" "red"
    "in the light of the fact" "because
    "in order that" "to"

    Ps-ssst! I'm currently reading "Addie And The Gunslinger" and loving it.

  2. Interesting post, and I definitely confess to over-wording it. However, I LIKE it in dialogue because, you know, that's like, how we talk!

  3. Celia, I am so guilty of overused words and phrases. Thank goodness for the rewriting process. Oh, and as you can see, I've done it again.
    Oops! BTW, great article.

  4. Hi, Laurean--this is a great list of useless words and phrases. I find I use those often, and honestly...I find it difficult sometimes to think of the word I should use. For example, Make an Effort to,"--don't we say that more often than "try?" I do...make an effort seems more natural.
    Thanks for those reminds--I'll add them to my list.
    I'm glad you like Addie. You write in a similar way--short sentences, inner thoughts, sort of funny, and a little sexy...with action. I haven't read your Medley yet--although I have read at least one--Over the Coals--and I remember it very well. I thought I'd read Jonquils in the Snow--but it doesn't sound I guess not.
    Thanks for visiting with me!

  5. LIZ--you're exactly right. What would dialogue be without our idioms and our personality thrown in? As I said, it would read like a textbook...and believe me, I've read novels that are written exactly that way. Boring.
    Thanks for you input.

  6. Hi, Loretta--I don't see you around as much as I used to. Our paths don't cross so much.
    Yes, we all do it...regional dialect or's the way we talk.
    Thanks for coming by. And yes, the re-rewriting process is wonderful--if not boring.

  7. Hi Celia - thanks for the reminders. Old and bad habits slip in when we least suspect them. I'm glad that you pointed out the difference between using some of these no-nos in dialogue vs prose.

    I hope hubby enjoyed his lunch!

  8. I'm guilty of the wordy sentences. Very informative article, Celia.

  9. As an editor, Celia, this is one of the things I stress over repeatedly. My best advice for those who are guilty of purple prose (myself included) is- keep it short and sweet, to the point if possible, but make sure it says what it needs to get a message or point across at the same time. Less is more, but sometimes more is less.

  10. Lynne--I still use them in prose too often. It's a real habit, and causes extra editing. If I'd just write it correctly in the first place, all the better.
    Hubby always enjoys his lunch, because I make it and hand it to him! To be fair, though, he always does the dishes. I haven't washed a dish in 15 years. I cook--he cleans up--his idea, too!

  11. Sarah--I love your wordy sentences. I bet you'd be fun to talk to in person and be around.
    Thanks for visiting.

  12. Calisa--I heard you were a very good editor. At first, I though you only I know.
    And some day I'm going to learn what Purple Prose is.
    Thanks for your comment.

  13. HI Celia,

    We all have our lists of overused phrases. My critique partner excels at "just". I am of course blindly perfect - ha! I miss stuff all the time and JUST when I think I know what I'm doing, I make a mistake that I learned not to do years ago.

    One of my flaws is the "was___-ing" verb construction. Another is the worthless "to be able to". Most of the time I catch those.

    But like you, I also came from the world of scientific articles, so it is a joy and a luxury to use adjectives and adverbs. Ooh-la-la!

  14. Maggie--yes, I thought you'd identify! Just? My worst sin. In one ms, the editor counted "just" 147 times. That number stuck in my head, and I try so hard to keep it out of any book. Probably, I haven't succeeded, though. I just can't help myself!

  15. Purple prose- all the flowery extraneous words authors think a reader needs to know exactly what the AUTHOR is trying to say--about every little detail in each and every scene of every chapter.
    Basically- everything you've mentioned in this post and more. Great job.

    It takes practice of the craft to learn that all a reader needs is to know what the CHARACTERS need to convey. Everything else is mulch for the editing floor. :)

    Thank you for the compliment.

  16. Good food for thought. It seems there are so many words we're expected not to use that it throws me off balance when ideas pop into my head. I have found it is easier to write it and then go back and find and replace. I have found the writing is a lot stronger without the 'weed' words. I just revised a story and spend two months writing ten hours a day doing this. We'll see if I did an adequate job when the first edits come.

  17. Good post, Celia. I think we all have our too-wordy sentences. I can usually spot mine when I read a chapter out loud. We all have over-used words too - mine are just and then. I use the find option on word, and 9 times out of 10 I can delete them, but there are times when they need to stay.

  18. You get so many great comments I often feel there's no point in adding to them because someone else has already said it. I did, however, love your fine line. THAT's the nub. I DO like all those 'unnecessary' words and feel you can't write good prose without them, but it can so easily slip into purple. I don't have any formula to help find the line, though. I think we maybe just learn by experience.

  19. Excellent post, Celia! My first editor told me I wrote too formal. She said listen to conversations. You want your dialogue to sound real. Best advice I was ever given.

  20. I smiled when I read your quote "Just the facts, ma'am" as I had just used that in a reply to Paula's post on another blog. Another coincidence? I speak Southern, and I write Southern, which I'm sure grates on many readers and editors. I'll try to do better, honest, I will.

  21. Celia, I like this post. I needed it. You know, when I write, I have to be careful about getting too wordy (imagine that!) But like you say, you don't want your writing to sound like a textbook. A writer I love (though she breaks all the rules) is Rosemary Rogers. Reading her books, you are just swept along with the action and thoughts and dialogue all intermingled and if you stop to dissect it all, you will find things that are "rulebreakers"--but she gets away with it because her books are so interesting and keep you turning the pages. Lots of good info in this post, and it's one that bears re-reading time and again as a reminder.

  22. Calisa--I Googled Purple Prose and now I have a clearer picture of its description. Very interesting information...thank you.

  23. Paisley--then, you write like Hemingway. He always said--I write and write, and then I re-write to eliminate half the words. That's actually the best way to write, I've been told, as you do. Just write--don't worry about editing, etc. as you go along. I do that about half the time...but if I know right then and there I've written a messy paragraph, I'll stop and re-write and edit it before I can move one.
    I'm reading Night Angel! I'm about half finished. I'll let you know my thoughts later.

  24. Paula--I feel very foolish reading out loud. I don't do it much, but if I do, I wait until I'm alone in the house! My husband might put me away!
    Like you, I have a list of words to highlight when I edit. I'm always surprised by the overuse, even when I though I was playing by the rules. The main one--"was."
    This past week, when meeting with a friend, new writer, I tried to explain why we should not use "was" so much. She couldn't grasp my explanation, even with examples.
    I've lost my touch as a teacher.

  25. Jenny--experience is always the best teacher. That fine line is often elusive, in my writing anyway. Sometimes I go the other way, and write with no extra words, and a beta reader, etc. might remind me to write showing more emotion.
    With your expertise, I hardly think you need advice from me!

  26. Anne--that is excellent advice. Mine, too, read like a textbook. Also, an author who can write good dialogue also has a better book.
    Thank you for visiting.

  27. Linda--haha. I hadn't read that--but sure, we'd say that at the same time! Your writing is way too good to take any advice I can give. Keep doing what you do best--write in your unique way--Southern or not.

  28. Thank you, Cheryl--I appreciate the kind words. Yes, you do have a lot of words! Your writing reads as though words are just exploding out! And that makes your books "you," fast-paced and exciting.

  29. Wonderful article. I agree what we need is more clean writing and less sweet writing.

  30. Well, this was a rather excellent piece in that it contained so many relevant examples which would have been difficult to understand except for the fact that each was put into some kind of context... (LOL)

  31. Tracy--wow! You're quick. Thanks for the chuckle!