Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stuff My (Writing) Students Say, Part VIII

"My work is just plain too wordy, especially when I'm writing in some backstory. The excess verbiage weighs down the pace in an unintended way, and I can almost sense a reader getting fatigued. But I can't seem to get around it. Maybe I'm just that kind of writer."

Or, maybe not. In any case, you're in luck. I have the *answer* and it's – get ready – more words. Yep, write a lot of them.

But then, cut at least half. Often more. Sometimes, a lot more.

If you find that you get wordy because you are trying to tell a complicated backstory, consider: Do I need all of it? Will a much more compressed version do? How about just a few key, vivid details? Would the backstory work better as narrator interior monologue, as a separate flashback scene, or as dialogue in an unfolding scene?

Or, how about: Can I do without it entirely?

This sounds counter intuitive, but you'd be surprised at what our pieces can live without.

This is an important consideration, and not just relating to being less wordy: What is left out of a piece of writing is very often more important, more telling, than what is included.

I cannot tell you how many times, usually in desperation, under deadline pressure and/or severe word restrictions, that I have simply hacked out an entire paragraph (or 2 or 3), written a new transition, and voila, the result is a far better piece overall.

At first there's a sense of "no way can the piece survive without this..." Then I make the big deletion anyway just to see how it works, and the next thing I know I'm thinking, "Why did I ever think I HAD to keep that in there in the first place?"

The above student also noted something else that's important -- that sometimes when he reads his own work he gets to a spot where he can sense a reader will feel fatigued or impatient. That's usually a clear sign that the real problem is very likely at a prior point in the text. By the time you can see that a piece is draggy, the reason is most often not what's on the page right there, but what's happening in the text that comes before that point. Everything we write builds on what comes before; so if by page 6 we're thinking, oh boy this is starting to get tedious, then we need to go back to page 5 or maybe even pages 4 or 3 and try to figure out where it loses its energy.

The rest of the Stuff My (Writing) Students Say series is here.

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