Friday, April 1, 2016

Make Every Word Count

by Jean Henry Mead

One of my early writing instructors stressed the need to make every word count. He said each word needs to pull its own weight and every unnecessary word should be culled from the plot. Good advice that I've followed over the years, although, coupled with my journalism training, I'm sometimes too brief, leaving out desirable descriptions.

I've found that writers need to engage readers, not simply enlighten and entertain them. Creating strong word images that readers can relate to is preferable to forcing them to fill in the blanks. For example, a military Hummer conveys a much stronger image than having a protagonist ride to the rescue in a Volkswagen bug. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone was a notable exception.

Strong verbs are necessary to give one’s plot a dynamic, energetic tone. Words such as hurried, leaped and flew as opposed to passive words like walked fast, made his way or became airborne. And as we’ve all been told, stay away from the verb to be in all its forms because it’s the weakest of words. But I confess that I still use all forms of to be in dialogue. Some rules are made to be broken, often at your own risk.

Adverbs that end in –ly also weaken a writer's prose. Use them sparingly. On the other hand, strong specific verbs give writing vitality. I’m reminded of my interview with A.B. Guthrie, Jr. who said, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun and the adverb is the enemy of damn near everything else. Writers use too many descriptive words." As for adjectives, author Lois J. Peterson once said, “One well-chosen adjective can be more effective than two or more, which used together might weaken the idea or image.” I agree.

Do we really need adverbs? Not unless it's impossible to come up with strong verbs. Eliminate the adverbs in a second draft and replace them with muscular verbs. As for adjectives, the rundown house can be rewritten as a hovel or shack. That's why every writer should have access to a thesaurus, including an electronic one.

Word choices affect the plot’s pace. If every symphony movement maintained the same pace, the audience would fall asleep before the finale. So writers need to think of themselves as conductors, controlling the pace with word choices, syntax and variety. Long sentences and paragraphs slow the pace and seem introspective while short, choppy sentences are much more dramatic and conducive to action scenes. So, in order to keep someone reading, sentences and paragraphs should vary in length.

Sentence rhythm is important, so reading one's work aloud before committing it to a final draft can prevent clumsy sentence structure. Some word choices bring a sentence to an abrupt halt and should be rewritten or replaced, along with all unnecessary words. The musical analogy is a good one (not my own) because sentence flow is so important.

2 comments:

Jackie King said...

Hi Jean, I'm just now coming out of a haze caused by bronchitis and am a bit late reading this post. Wonderful advice to all writers, both beginning and experienced. Thanks for the article on wordsmithing.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm sorry to hear you've been sick but glad that you getting better. Thank you for the kind words.