Omit Needless Words!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

It’s with a wee bit of wistfulness that I write this blog post, as not only have we bid ‘au revoir’ to two of our blog mates, John Gilstrap and John Ramsey Miller, but also because I have realized just how many blogs have now gone off-line having, perhaps, run out of steam or time or words of wisdom. It’s hard thinking up topics week-after-week and deep down, I fear, I repeat myself a lot:) 

However, there are always new topics that catch my attention (like just how Fifty Shades of Grey has managed to become a huge bestseller…)  and old topics that never seem to be resolved. One of these is the question of just what makes bad writing, well…bad. I was prompted to ponder this issue anew by an article in the ‘Dear Book Lover’ column of  the Wall Street Journal last month (which my husband forwarded to me, hopefully, not because he thinks my own writing is bad!).  

As this column points out, bad writing is impossible to define because of the inherent subjectiveness involved in determining what constitutes ‘bad writing’. It goes on, however, to point out that bad writing almost always involves overwriting and here is where I have a confession to make – I am an overwriter. There I’ve said it. When I was younger almost all my material was packed to the brim with overripe metaphors and obscure concepts. In the words of Roger H. Garrison (“How a Writer Works”) it was flowing with the “tides of phony, posturing, pretentious, tired, imprecise slovenly language, which both suffocate and corrupt the mind.” Mea culpa, indeed…

So what did I do to change this tide? I took Strunk and White’s advice to heart  and I learned to “omit needless words.” Sadly, I still overwrite on occasion, but at least now I (usually) pick it up in the editing and revision process. It also helps me to follow another terrific mantra to “keep it simple, stupid.” Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my comment to Jim’s post yesterday, I still find it hard to do the same when it comes to concepts or plots, but I am learning (I hope!).

So how do you define ‘bad writing’? Are, you like, a closet over-writer or are you blessed by the goddess of brevity? Do you find that your tolerance for sloppy prose has diminished over the years? Perhaps this has helped my own writing. Gone are the days of buying into the high-faluting drivel  of many so-called literary novels. Nowadays, I want to read something that distills rather than over-kills a complex concept. What about you? Will you keep reading even if the actual writing is (dare we say it) ‘bad’?

17 thoughts on “Omit Needless Words!

  1. Clare, I’ll tell you one terrific bit of advice I learned from Sol Stein: 1 + 1 = 1/2. What this means is that when you use two words or phrases to describe the same thing, the effect is not cumulative, it’s dilutive. It makes the sense weaker (because readers are actually trying to process too much information).

    The moon was a ghostly galleon, a silver schooner tossed upon cloudy seas.

    Now I have no idea if this was on the scratch paper of Alfred Noyes when he first drafted “The Highwayman,” but in such a case the writer has diluted the power of the image. So…cut the weakest one.

    The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.

    Now we’re cooking.

  2. Clare-
    I strive for brevity. It is not my natural inclination.

    As a reader i will tolerate an abundance of description. What I do find intolerable in writing is compromised credibility. Story developmenta or character behaviors that are illogical, irrational or blatantly dumb lose me in a hurry.

  3. I have a very short attention span with fiction. Non-fiction, I’ll plow through almost anything, if I feel I’m learning something. With fiction, I expect to be transported, and quickly. For example, I have become a compulsive downloader of Kindle samples. If I’m not drawn in completely by the end of a book’s sample, I’m off to the next sample. (Very few samples get the job done, so maybe I’m using the wrong approach!)

  4. I think the fact that I read a lot of non-fiction helped me with my fiction. Reading about real lives,actual events, you see the limits and effects of the good and bad, the rich and poor, the powerful and weak. I still love non-fiction for that reason.

    When I write fiction I want it to feel like non-fiction, if that makes sense. I think you get dragged into books that feel real and have characters and conflicts that seem las though you could know them, go through them in your life, were it to take a turn into danger or love.

    Oh, and thanks for the kind mention. It’s a bit like spying on your own funeral.

  5. I guess I’m different than most. If I buy a book, I read it. No matter how bad it is writing-wise. My only exception (which rarely happens) is if I buy a book which somehow contains content that I find extremely offensive or noxious. But I usually do my homework before I press buy.

    Unfortunately, I’m guilty of going overboard with needless words. That’s one reason why I end up revising everything umpteen times.

  6. I now underwrite and it can be as big a problem. I’ve pubbed and done well with a fair amount of shorts and flash fiction and now I can’t seem to make word count if it would forestall the zombie apoc.

    I have something with an editor now and the notes include, “where is this?” “when is it set?” Now to me, that is all obvious from the verbal clues. Evidently not . . .

    I’ve developed an allergy to description.

    To me bad writing leaves nothing to my interpretation. The heroine is lovely. Now I have my own interpretation of what lovely is and if the writer gives me a feature by feature description and it doesn’t fit my archetype, I no longer buy into the heroine’s beauty. I prefer inference.

    Same with clothing and vehicles. An OMGwellknown god of thrillers, in an otherwise good book describes the female MC’s “sexy” outfit. By the time he got to her black shoes I thought she looked like she worked for a caterer. Meh . . . no sexy there. And his male MC couldn’t just get into his car. He had to get into his late model forest green Range Rover with the special off-road tires and custom interior. Blech.

    So, we’ll see if I can get over my description rash and turn out a work that doesn’t read like a screen play.


  7. The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
    And the highway man came riding–
    Up to the old in door.

    I love that poem!

    About a year ago, I met a man–a kid, really–whose last name was Ostler. First name was Tim. Honestly, no one had let him in on the joke.


  8. I fear I love description and can sometime relish using way too much of it. I have pared down my work so now, hopefully, I make do with the strongest visual images and discard all the superfluous ones. I have little time for other people’s overblown prose but it still is hard taking a scalpel to my own! My thesis supervisor told me (and this was obviously for non-fiction, so you can see how bad I am) “more vanilla, less chocolate” – I try to keep that in mind when I am launching into a bit of purple prose!

  9. I strive for brevity. It is not my natural inclination.

    As a reader I will accept considerable description and am tolerant of overdone explanation.

    I cannot abide story developments or character behaviors that I can not accept as credible. Credibility failure typically results in me closing the book feeling a bit cheated.

  10. Some books are overwritten because the author really wants to convey their point eloquently, and while that’s not necessarily good for keeping the writing neat and trim it stems from the desire to paint a clear picture and I don’t mind if it makes sense.

    On the other hand some writers overwrite because they feel they need to stuff the word count to reach a minimum quote of verbage such that a reader of such works, be they an agent, an editor, or a publisher, will in the end agree most certainly and without a shred of doubt, that the writer is quite intelligent or at least as the ability to string words together in a manner that not only tells the story but reiterates a point so many times that even the least intelligent, or marginally ignorant, or perhaps even stupid reader would be able to fully and completely comprehend what the writer is trying to convey even though they may not have understood the four initial alliterations to the particular point but only fell upon a sense of comprehension and fully grasped the meaning of the text, plot and sense of story on the fifth, sixth or even twelfth or seventeenth description of the same thing the writer had unsuccessfully attempted a portrayal at so many times hence.

    That or they just think we’re stupid and won’t notice that they’ve said the same thing a dozen times.

  11. When the voice in my head screams, “Just get on with it!” I’m a click away from nipping it. I hate the feeling of moving backward through time. So there.

    Today’s dilemma reminds me of the farmer who’s chickens all died. “Don’t know what happened. Either watered ’em too much or planted ’em too deep.”

    Please-oh-please, never end this blog. It’s the best!

  12. I try never to slow down the pace but I confess to liking richly described worlds. For example I will allow George R R Martin to go on for a bit all for the sake of world building. Won’t put up with pretentious twaddle, however, that is supposed to impress me….especially when I feel like the author just wants to show me how much he knows or how clever he thinks he is!

  13. In a way I think writers are all a bit insecure in terms of explaining the world they’re trying to reveal. Thus, with sweaty palms, they return too many times to the same point. This can make the alert reader crazy, while at the same time mollifying the writer who is thinking, “Damn, I’m glad I finally nailed that one.”

  14. I tend to underwrite in the first draft, but Terry’s comment about making the same point too many times reminds me of one way I do overwrite. I have a tendency to “over-locate” the reader. It’s as if I assume they have forgotten where the scene is taking place, or what happened three paragraphs ago. I’m constantly putting in locaters to ground the reader in the scene. My beta readers point out my excess use of locaters from time to time, saying “We’re not dumb, we already know where (the character) is.” I guess I’m afraid (my version of sweaty palms) that due to some lack of clarity, I will lose them in the narrative flow.

  15. It is hard, though, isn’t it as sometimes you think you have made something clear and then one beta reader asks “where are we?” and you realize you haven’t! Less sometimes isn’t more…but like all writers we keep learning as we go!

  16. I just finished the last of a collection of linked short stories which will come out sometime in 2013-14. The editorial comment has been a nagging: where are we? Why don’t we know more about the narrator? I have pointed out (rather pointedly) that the short story has evolved a lot and that Hemingway, O’Hara, O’Connor, and Carver have shown us that a great deal is revealed through what the character says, does, his or her gestures. But there remains a stubbornness here: a kind of neediness on the part of readers to be told, to be prodded;then when we do add the details, they get the literary sniffles. I think in the end, as writers, we should simply say – here’s the door, there’s the knob. don’t forget your hat.

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