Don’t Belabor Your Prose

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today, in honor of Labor Day, I wanted to cover something that has been bugging me all week. It began last Monday when I started a new book and within pages the prose was already starting to annoy me. The words, or at least the author’s choice of long, lugubrious, often archaic words were already getting in the way of the story – and I wasn’t even at Chapter 2!  As soon as I started to read I got the impression that the author was trying way too hard to impress the reader, rather than focusing on creating a compelling story. In some ways the writer was confusing style with content and in so doing, this reader at least, was no longer interested in reading. It had become too laborious. The words themselves had got in the way.

So why was this? I think in this instance it was the result of a naive writer hoping to show-off their linguistic prowess (or something like that – it felt like dictionary gymnastics at times!) and hoping perhaps that this somehow created an aura of literary validity (it didn’t!). What frustrated me the most was that the word choices detracted from what could have been a pretty strong start to a cozy mystery. It got me thinking about why – for someone like me who is drawn to perhaps the more wordy novels anyway (I love Dickens!) – was the prose was so off-putting? I decided it was simple – it was because it was unnecessary. And this at the heart of most things that go wrong with the start of a novel. Anything that feels unnecessary to the reader creates a barrier between them and the page. It stops them from wanting to keep turning that page. Instead, I like to think that a writer should go through a checklist, when reviewing their work, asking themselves a series of questions – something a little like this:

  1. Can I use a simpler word, phrase or description? When I substitute that, does it propel the story forward, or dilute it? (If it dilutes the power of what is being described or being said, then maybe the original word, phrase or description should stay).
  2. What is my reason for using a long/obscure word instead of a more straightforward one? Does it serve as mere affectation, or provide something more nuanced and appropriate in the circumstances? Am I using it because I think it makes me sound more erudite or because it’s the right word to use?
  3. Would most readers have to look the word up? (if so, why use it? It only stops a reader dead in their tracks).
  4. Does my writing sound like I just ingested a thesaurus? (If so, edit now!)
  5. When I read my writing aloud does it flow or do I find myself stumbling over the word choices I’ve made? (I find this an invaluable tool – because if I find myself tripping over the words I know I reader will find it hard to read the piece too).

Basically, don’t belabor your words. Let them flow, simply and easily. Readers will thank you.

So TKZers, tell, me what was the last book that you felt the author belabored their words? Any of your own advice to add to the checklist?

What novelists can learn from song writers

Joe Moore

Last Friday, a giant in country music passed away. George Jones was not only considered by many to be the greatest country singer of all time, but also one of the most self-destructive. His string of hits was fueled by a private life of booze that was nothing short of gj-1devastating. Once when his wife hid the car keys so he couldn’t go buy alcohol, he hopped on a riding lawn mower and rode it into town to the liquor store. He later parodied the story in a music video.

But despite the long chain of events that few mortals could survive, George Jones climbed to the top of the mountain and made a place for himself that will forever be the gold standard in country music.

His life was a soap opera that was mirrored in the songs he sang. His struggles with the demons of alcoholism are reflected in some of his album titles: “The Battle”, “Bartender’s Blues”, and the defiant “I Am What I Am”. But out of this self-inflicted carnage of a tragic life, one song emerged as arguably the greatest country song ever written: “He Stopped Loving Her Today”.

The song is performed with the singer telling the story of his "friend" who has never given up on his love. He keeps old letters and photos, and hangs on to hope that she would "come back again." The song reaches its peak with the chorus, telling us that he indeed stopped loving her – when he finally died.

It’s poignant, sad, and paints a heart-wrenching portrait of absolute love and devotion, as well as never-ending hope. Not only does it drill to the core of emotion, but it delivers the story with the few words.

So what does this have to do with writing books? Everything.

It’s called the economy of words—telling the most story with the least amount of text. It is an art form that songwriters must master, and novelists must study. There is no better example of the economy of words than in a song like ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. Not one word is wasted. No filler. No fluff. Remove or change a word from the song and the mental picture starts to deflate. The story is told in the most simplistic manner and the result is a masterpiece. Every word is chosen for its optimal emotional impact. Nothing is there that shouldn’t be. It is a grand study in how to write anything.

I’m not suggesting that your 100K-word novel be written with the intensity of George Jones’ song. In fact, if it were, it would probably be too overwhelming to comprehend. But my point is that no matter who you are—New York Times bestseller or wannabe author, your book contains too many unnecessary words. If you can say it in 5 instead of 10, do it. Get rid of the filler and fluff. Respect the economy of words. Less is more.

For those that love George Jones, enjoy this video. For those that have not heard “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, click the link, listen and learn.

He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones