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Power in Brevity

March 26, 2012

For the past few weeks I’ve been obsessing over the song “Somebody I Used to Know” by Gotye (feat. Kimba). Something about it stimulated the writer in me. When I heard it for the first time, I could picture the characters. I could picture their entire relationship. It was so vivid. I don’t know if it’s the lyrics or just my imagination. But it got me thinking.

Have you ever listened to a song and felt a shift in your chest? An emotional twinge like a too-strong heartbeat, brought on by lyrics that seem to speak directly to you? Songwriting — good songwriting — is like poetry. You have to be an incredible writer to create such characters, to tell such story in a few short stanzas. But this post isn’t about poetry. Not really. It’s about the power in words.

When I was a teenager, I worked for a newspaper. I was an assistant copy editor, and I also wrote articles. My editor could always count on me turning in a lot of material. My articles were lengthy. Give me a story about a local fair, and I’ll write you a book. I was proud of that ability. I felt that I could make any news piece long and interesting. I considered it a challenge. Sports column? No problem. I can write sports. 4-H spotlight? I’ve got that, no sweat.

Now that I’m older, I realize that was pretty stupid.

Being able to carry a story and hold an audience for a long amount of time is a skill, but “long-winded” doesn’t always mean “good.” Nowadays, I’m discovering that there is much more merit in being able to write concisely, but with strength and magic in your words. If you choose your words properly, you don’t need as many of them.

Sentences

Unnecessary words can bog your sentences down. I want to glide through prose, not wade through it. If I have to stop and process what’s being said, I’m being pulled out of the story.

Description is a major culprit here. Is description bad? Dear god, no. But if it’s too flowery, or there’s simply too much of it, the characters and plot will get lost in it. A good writer can paint a picture with words. A fantastic writer can do it in twenty words or less. (A good example is here: http://missadventureporting.blogspot.com/2011/05/grammar-girl-writing-concisely-part-2.html. )

Emphasis words can be worse than bulky description. Words like “some” and “really” almost always detract from a point rather than add to it. Compare: “He has a really vibrant personality that some people find charming” and “He has a vibrant personality that people find charming.” The second sentence is both cleaner and stronger. (This a lesson I’m still learning, but it’s a good one, and it’s made my writing much more effective.)

Don’t use expensive words when cheap words will do, and don’t use cheap words when none will do. Your story is crafted of sentences, and sentences are built from words. Treat the words with respect. Do it properly. Know what you’re saying. Writing is communication. Don’t lose your reader.

Flash Fiction

I have admiration and envy for anyone who can pull off flash fiction. It’s something I’m working towards, myself. Apparently there are “short story people” and “novel people.” I’m a “novel person.” I think in terms of stories that require chapters of build up. My characters develop over thousands of words. But I’m challenging myself, as an exercise, to practice flash fiction. If you don’t already do it yourself, I recommend it. It’s a wonderful lesson in choosing words, conveying theme and emotion, and portraying characters without over-speaking.

Short Stories

Short stories are the next level up from flash fiction. I’m going to talk about short stories in detail later on. I’m still not prepared for that post, which is why this one’s here. (And this one is late, I know. I haven’t had a second of spare time in weeks.) But please, if you love reading, read short stories. It’s something I have to make myself do. I like books. I sometimes forget short stories exist, and that they can be just as powerful. But I can’t forget that. Like flash fiction, it’s another lesson in brevity. Can you write a full story that draws readers in, provokes an emotional response, and carries readers on an imaginative journey given only a few thousand words?

For some of you, this may be easy. But it’s not for me. My brain doesn’t like to work that way. Which isn’t always a bad thing, it’s simply a matter of using your strengths and improving your weaknesses.

Young Adult Novels

Well-written young adult novels are a wonderful resource for writers. They’re designed to be gobbled up. You want an example of writing that moves quickly, flows well, and carries you along for the ride, grab yourself a good YA book. Even http://www.flickr.com/photos/noahbulgaria/with the success of series like The Hunger Games and the (debatably YA) Harry Potter books, YA doesn’t get enough credit. Good YA can be fantastic. Books like The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron (and The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston, aimed for an even younger audience) were the building blocks of my dream to become a writer. Don’t discount it as a resource. You can learn a lot from the concise yet compelling, simple yet complex, beautiful books nestled in with the mind-eroding, poorly written, glorified fan-fiction crap the genre is sometimes known for.*

All that said, keep the following in mind:

There’s definitely room for the Neal Stephensons of the world. There is no universal “right” way to do things. A long sentence is not necessarily a bad one. But as you write, you should be aware of how approachable your writing is. Remember that someone has to read this. They have to want to read it. Draw them in with strong words and a stronger story. Don’t weigh them down. If you’re going to use a lot of words, use the right ones.

*Disclaimer: if you automatically assume I’m taking a dig at Twilight here, think again. I have never read it and don’t have much of an opinion on it beyond as an interesting study for a writer. If you’re one of those people who violently dislikes the series, remember, it was extremely successful. Writing is communication. Obviously it reached something in its readers. Whether or not you like it, you can learn from it.

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From → General Advice

7 Comments
  1. I have this nagging suspicion that you are my Canadian poetry professor in disguise lol. You both share the exact same philosophies when it comes to writing. Although he generally just refers to writing poetry and doesn’t usually cite popular books such as The Hunger Games as examples.
    All in all, great post and thank you for the advice! I will definitely take it into consideration in my own work! This post really (pardon my use of the word hehe) put things into perspective for me as a writer!

    • I’m glad you liked it! It’s a topic that is becoming more and more important to my own writing, both at work and in my own projects, so I thought I’d share what I was learning.

  2. Well, I appreciate you sharing your experiences and offering advice about writing. Your insight is extremely useful for aspiring writers such as myself and even more experienced writers, I’m sure. Sharing your opinion can help other writers take a step back and re-evaluate their own work in terms of how they can make it more appealing to their target audience(s) as well as emphasizing the importance of the editing process. A lot of writers–myself included–find the editing the most difficult part when it comes to their work because they are too closely related to it. But, I really think you hit the nail on the head with idea that conciseness and brevity are the key to “good” writing.

    • A lot of what I’ve learned has come from speaking with other writers, and I wanted to pass it on. Thanks very much for sharing your feedback! It’s nice to know that someone finds what you’ve written useful.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I always struggle with the ’emphasis’ words all the time. The more I write, the more I am aware of these niggling ‘extras’.

    • I struggle with them, too. And like you, the more I write, the more I’m aware of it. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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