Saturday, 24 September 2011

Why Being Wordy Isn't a Sin

Firstly, the wordiness in question is not really about the long-winded round-about-way in which we write sometimes or the use of too much verbosity, but rather it’s about being wordy in a narrative/descriptive sense.

Being wordy can create awkward sentences, but when carefully crafted, some sentences actually leap from the page because being wordy is what is actually needed.

There is a lot of debate about the use of big, flowery words in literature and how appropriate they may be within the context of the piece, but many critics sometimes forget that writing is all about expression and the freedom of a writer to express him or herself in whichever way they want. That’s what makes every writer unique, after all.

There are no hard and fast rules that state that big or literary words can’t be used in fiction, because they can, as long as they’re not over used and they’re placed within the context of the story. For example, flowery words that most people have never heard of before wouldn’t really sit too well in a dark, gritty action thriller and likewise, the use of raw, street-style descriptive words wouldn’t fit with a romance novel. Words have their place.

They also have effects that have the right moment, too. Their effectiveness depends on what you want to express.

That aside, there is a lot of advice out there says writers shouldn’t use big or flowery words and that modern editors prefer plain English, but the proof of this is, for the most part, unpalatable and depressing - most books on the shelf are all pretty much the same and some contain some really dull, uninteresting description - there is nothing in the voice that resembles anything fresh or powerful. Nothing but sameness is evident because of this trend for simple, straightforward English.

Writers sometimes need those kind of words sprinkled into their narrative, and they need personal expression, because without being wordy to a certain degree, nothing would be written in the first place. Adding the odd big word or two isn’t bad, nor is bringing boring, stilted description alive with a few colourful strokes.

Choice of words is what counts, but it’s also about what you want to say and how you choose to say it that matters.

The idea is to create elegance and colour with descriptions, to wrap the reader in a visual kaleidoscope and let them enjoy all the shades you breathe into your story, instead of losing them in a flourish of fancy words. Fancy words mean nothing if you don’t understand why and how to use them. You can still be clear and concise with what you want to say, but you can do it with colour and flair.

I despair at some of the MSS I receive for critique because so many writers follow this ‘plain English’ mantra and produce lacklustre drivel. Why? Because they haven’t grasped how or when to use the right words, and they haven’t mastered the colours of description.

This is an excerpt from a flash fiction piece called Zero Hour:

A gentle breeze brushed past him, soft and delicate like a butterfly, and he felt invisible, wispy fingers of comfort against his greying skin. He gazed up at the sky; saw the strange, layered clouds, full with moisture and melancholy.

By keeping it plain and simple, you would you have the following:

A gentle breeze brushed past him and he felt invisible fingers of comfort against his greying skin. He gazed up at the sky; saw the strange clouds, full with moisture.

They are both fine, but one creates a deeper, richer picture, one doesn’t. One of these might be considered too wordy, the other is concise. One brings depth to its descriptive framework, one doesn’t. One tells the reader, the other shows.

You decide which one is better.

Here’s another example of how it’s done, with a 100-word flash fiction piece called ‘A Bad Colour’.

Amber slices projected through the trees, the haze of the fire began to swell. The hint of burnt sienna wafted close, scorched a path beneath their noses.

Rope fibres moaned as they became taut, to temper the weight.

Shadows appeared through the smoke, circled him. Milk coloured robes flapped in the breeze, bathed by the fire glow, their faces hidden by hoods.

Red over black; the colour of life slinked down his skin, snaked down the channels they had gouged through his flesh. Open viscera gleamed.

He swung from the tree as the cross burned; the price for being different.

If I had written A Bad Colour in a plain English kind of way, it would be about as interesting as rainwater in a bucket.

Of course, no entire novel is constructed this way, but it shows that being a bit wordy helps the narrative and description in certain places. As the writer, you have to know when it’s needed and what words to use. So, being wordy isn’t a sin. It’s a way of expression. 

Remember:
  • Choose the right words
  • Ask yourself - what do I want to express?
  • Is it better to be dull and concise, or better to be a little wordy?
  • Is your description dull, or does it bloom with colour?
  • Is your description and narrative lost, or does it rise from the page with added dimension?
No one can argue that excessive long-winded or verbose narrative is good, because it isn’t, but occasionally there will be times when it’s just necessary because it falls into context of the story and it actually brings the narrative to life.

Being wordy isn’t bad, it just means that we can be rebellious every now and then in the face of the literature police and just express ourselves the way we want to, how we want to.

No one would tell Picasso or Rembrandt how to paint, and likewise we don’t tell writers how to write. We can only show them how, with advice, to be better.

Next week: How to make description sparkle.


12 comments:

  1. I recently read an article about Paul McCartney that annoyed me to no end. He was redundant and sounded like a precocious child trying too hard with descriptive words I'll bet he uses in all his other articles. What you sited didn't sound like that at all. I'd like to get a handle on that without sounding like him. I am guilty of being nondescript in my efforts to sound real. This was a great observation and helped me. I'll work on that. thanks

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  2. I much prefer the expressive way of writing. Plain English is more for college essays, in my opinion. All my favourite books are written in "wordy" ways; I find the more straightforward way just "slips down", the equivalent of literary McDonalds, leaving me unsatisfied. I'm just learning how to write, so this was a very interesting post for me.

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  3. "I despair at some of the MSS I receive for critique"

    Do you offer this service?


    Surely if we get wrapped in all this technical stuff we can lose the essence of a good story. Do we need to know this to be published? Does knowing it ensure we will be?

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  4. Thanks for the comment, Curmudgeon.

    And thanks Polly, glad I'm not the only one disappointed by what's on the bookshelves.

    @anonymous

    I do critiques, have done so for the last decade.

    You state an interesting point about being wrapped in all the technical stuff. Writing is subjective, so at the end of the day, writers can do as they please. It's just common sense to learn all one can about the craft in order to get on the path to publication, and that includes the technical stuff. Knowledge of it is no guarantee of becoming published, but it helps if you know a little than nothing at all. Publication is never guaranteed either; not everything we write will become published, no matter how experienced we are.

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  5. You make a very good point. I can see a difference in your examples and how wordiness does work in certain points of a story. I think if you're trying to describe something romantic, beautiful or emotional flowery words work great. It makes the writer feel more moved by what he is seeing in his/her story. I just googled 'wordiness in writing' to see what I could find on wordiness and everything was about CUTTING and EDITING out flowery, "unnessacary" words but virtually nothing on how wordiness is good. It's a shame that some publishers feel that wordiness is that out-dated. I'd love to see more books where writers had let themselves go and let their writing flow out of them in big beautiful flowery words rather then feeling so restricted that they must be so simple. Here's too all of us freeing those chains and expressing ourselves with our enormous words!

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  6. Hurray! I agree - there is a time to be wordy, flowery - however you like to put it. And there's a time not to be. The hard part is knowing the difference. Good article.

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  7. Thanks for the comments Holly. I wish writers would go for it and be expressive, the writing would be amazing.

    Thanks for popping in and commenting, Rosalie.

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    1. Thank you so much for this perspective, AJ. I'm a writer who is very much inspired by the classic literary greats of the earlier half of the twentieth century; writers like Steinbeck, Golding, Conrad and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (latter half of the 20th C). I've been in love with the depth with which they describe scenes, places and characters since I started writing - and this comes out in my own writing.

      I've recently self-published a novel which was extremely well-received by those who bought print copies. It was unanimously praised by those who read it; people were especially complementary about my style, as well as the pacing, plot and characters.

      A few days ago I posted some of the content on a well-populated writer's forum. Many people enjoyed the sample, but two big wigs were quick to stomp all over it with the usual "this is wordy, which is a major problem. Cut half of it out."

      The problem is, as you've stated so wonderfully in this piece, is that this is how I express myself. I don't write the way I do because I'm trying to impress anyone; it's just *how* I write, based on what has inspired me for years. I've learned to cut down on excessive wordiness over the years, as it seems to be seen as a dire sin by the big boys, but I maintain that there is room for deep and vivid use of language. I dislike the current vogue for "sparse is everything, annihilate any word that isn't 100% essential" prose, and I get great joy from reading a beautifully-wrought, intricate description such as those done so often by my literary heroes.

      Thanks again for this post!

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    2. Hi Jon,

      I agree with you on this subject 100%. I advocate all writers to be themselves, to have their own writing style and voice. That's what makes us unique. I am not a fan of simple, sparse fiction, simply because it gives me nothing; there is no depth. A lot of it smacks of 'telling' rather than 'showing' and that really doesn't impress me. I want my senses tickled by everything the writer can throw at me, and my style of writing is about that, letting the reader in on every level. It just makes for a better, deeper read.

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    3. Hi Jon,

      Got your message. I have your email and deleted the details as requested. I will be in touch.

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    4. Great :) I hope you enjoy my work. As I said, from what I've read on your blog, I think you will. It's been getting great reviews so far (fingers crossed for more). Have a lovely day!

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