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Hanging on every (fourth) word

13 May 2013


I’ve been reading some unpublished stuff lately, and like most unpublished stuff, it varies in quality. But there’s one specific plague I’m seeing a lot of — overwriting.

Most writers have a certain fondness for words (and if they don’t, it’s possible they’re in the wrong business). Sometimes — and I’m no different here — we let our love of the language interfere with storytelling. We use long, wordy passages to describe a shoe. We use huge, five-dollar words to talk about a character lacing up that shoe. And most times, we need to take the advice of my freshman-year journalism instructor: Just say it and shut up.

This is a tough lesson to learn. We like writing, and honestly, we like trying to show everyone just how smart we are. Unfortunately, a lot of times, we end up with clunky, borderline-unreadable sentences that pull readers right out of the story — or worse, language that makes them give up and put down the book entirely.

It’d be rare if any of you out there had the same journalism teacher I did, but judging by the box office and DVD sales, most of us saw Ocean’s 11. There’s a scene where Brad Pitt is prepping Matt Damon to go undercover as a gaming commission official, and he gives a piece of advice I find invaluable as a writer: Don’t use seven words when four will do.

It’s entirely possible that Brad Pitt is the prophet of the written word, and that’s frightening.

Joking aside, though, it’s advice I dig, and try to incorporate wherever possible. I’m sure there are situations and genres where the advice doesn’t hold true, though — so let’s talk about them in the comments! Where do you think it’s fine, or even preferable, to be wordy and florid in fiction?

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