Economy

Credible prose uses only as many words as it needs to create its effects. It doesn't sprawl.

That doesn't mean, of course, that it can't be repetitious. Repetition can be used to great effect—if it's deliberately used to create a mood, an atmosphere, or a state of mind. Here's William Faulkner, the Great Repeater himself, describing Quentin Compson listening to Miss Rosa Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom!:

Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wistaria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled . . .

This is obviously very repetitive: of ceasing versus vanishing, of sweetness, of dimness and gloom, of sunlight that is impacted and distilled and hyperdistilled. But Faulkner is in complete control of his redundancy, using it relentlessly to paint a society obsessive about the past, a society repeating and repeating old sins, nurturing them by dwelling on them as long as possible (it will be three hours before Miss Coldfield tells Quentin what he's been summoned for.) Repetitive prose is well suited to obsession and to dwelling on old sins. Nothing about Faulkner's redundancy feels accidental.

For most stories, however, economical prose will serve you much better. English poet Robert Southey said, "Be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed the deeper they burn." One hundred fifty years later, this is still good advice, unfortunately unheeded by the author of the following sentence:

He looked around the sparsely furnished main room, spartan in decor, boasting only a dilapidated couch, a sawed-off bench, a crusty sofa, plus a few other knickknacks strewn about the otherwise bare and dusty floor. It seemed to him a hopeless and depressing dump.

This prose sprawls. It takes forty-four words to say what could have been said in twenty-two with no loss of information or effect. ("He studied the Spartan main room: dilapidated couch, sawed-off bench, crusty sofa, knickknacks on the dusty floor. What a dump, he thought.") Over the course of a novel, that economy would cut the page count in half. If your story can be told in half as many words, why should the reader have to read twice as many? If an editor suspects that you, the writer, don't know how to write economically, you lose credibility. To avoid that, scrutinize your opening with a ruthless eye. Take out all repetitions that don't serve a definite purpose.

0 0

Post a comment