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Monday, April 23, 2018

Wordiness


A while ago I did a post on purple prose, and today I want to talk about one if its relatives: wordiness. 

They can overlap, but they are different. Purple prose may include wordiness, and wordiness may turn into purple prose, but it is possible to have one without the other. 

Wordiness is taking more words than necessary to say whatever it is you are trying to say. 

And like purple prose, it's also a phase of writing that I think writers naturally go through at some point. It could be in middle school or high school, or it could be in your 50's, but most of us have likely courted wordiness at one time or another. 

(Remember in school when you were trying to fill up a 5-page essay with a 2-page topic. Yup.)



So let's go through the characteristics of wordiness with some examples to help us discern it and understand why it's a problem.

Now, to me, wordiness is usually a sum of issues, instead of just one thing here and there. Not all of these characteristics are inherently bad, but it's usually the combination of them or the way they are used that's the problem. Contrary to the meme at the very beginning, you don't have to go through and literally cut every. Single. Excess. Word. --Though some people may tell you to. Believe it or not, I think there are times where "unnecessary words" are exactly what you need, and I started a post on that once . . . I really should finish it and publish it on here. Anyway . . . 

Redundancy


Redundancy comes about for a couple of main reasons:

1 - the writer doesn't trust the reader to get it the first time.

It was April 6th, and today was Cindy's birthday. She'd been looking forward to this day for weeks, because it likewise happened to be her cousin Mimi's birthday, and they were going to celebrate all day together. Both Cindy and Mimi were born on April 6th; they shared the same birthday. 

Here the writer (my alter ego ;) Maybe I should make up a persona for my bad writing) is worried that the reader isn't going to pick up on the fact that Cindy and Mimi share the same birthday, which is pretty miraculous (at least the writer thinks so), so they write it multiple ways within a matter of sentences.

Look, the first mention of it was pretty straightforward. You need to trust that the reader has the ability to make obvious logical connections. We don't need to be told same exact information within a matter of sentences. The only time this might be okay is if you are trying to explain something very complicated or unfamiliar to the reader. Here, we know what a birthday is. We get it the first time.

2 - the writer doesn't trust implication

Some of the most powerful writing comes from implying. Big things can be implied, but more importantly, little things don't need to be said.

Once Kip sat to the right of her, Alice took her hand out of her jacket pocket and took his hand with hers, with his left hand in her right hand. 

The audience really doesn't need this much specificity and detail to understand what is going on. Just say, "Once Kip sat to her right, Alice took his hand." Where her hand was before probably isn't important. "Took" implies she used her hand, so we don't even need to say it. He's sitting right of her, so it's assumed by default that his left is in her right. 


Long Multi-Syllable Words and/or Uncommon Words


There is a phase that most writers go through where they think that the fancier the word is, the more sophisticated of a writer they are. They might grab the thesaurus and find the most complicated word to say the simplest thing. Dictionary.com's "word of the day" feature is great at doing this sort of thing, which sometimes drives me nuts. Don't pick overly complicated words that no one is familiar with to say something that can be said more simply. 

Sure, some of these words are great for academic papers, but not for storytelling. 

The field that Steve stumbled upon was prodigiously verdigris with anthophilia circumnavigating every inflorescence.

Overusing multi-syllable words and uncommon words makes the writing more complicated than it needs to be, and the tone becomes too pedantic. You can break this rule in special circumstances, but usually . . . not.

Filler Phrases and Unnecessary Words


This one can be a little tricky because a lot of times we aren't aware we are even using them. 

In my personal opinion, during that period of time, the stone had turned orange in color and sparkly in appearance.

All opinions are personal, so you can delete that word. Also, depending on the scene and character, you may not even need to say "opinion"--that can be implied. "Period" suggests time, so you can delete "of time." Orange is a color, so you can delete "in color." "Sparkly" refers to appearance, so you can delete "in appearance."

Style by Joseph M. Williams gives some good examples of these phrases to watch out for. Here are just a few:

Free gift (all gifts are free)
Each individual
Future plans
True facts

And also:

Due to the fact --> Because
Despite the fact --> Though
Concerning the matter of --> About


Passive Voice


I'm a big believer that passive voice isn't always wrong. However it should almost never be your go-to. If you aren't familiar with passive voice, rather than explain it all over, just read about it at Purdue OWL.

Passive voice naturally takes more words to say something than active voice does. And if you are using passive voice regularly, there's probably a problem. It also adds all those to-be words, which can relate to wordiness too.

The door was kicked down by me, swiftly without many motions, but a whole lot of decisiveness was used by me, that was apparent to everybody. 


Bonus:

Watch out for words being unintentionally repeated too close together. That can contribute to wordiness.



Wordiness can come from trying to be too dramatic, which is often where it veers into purple prose, which is the wrong way to render a dramatic moment.

It can also come from a writer thinking the more words he can use to describe something, the better. Again, like purple prose, that's not how it actually works.

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