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Hanging on every (fourth) word

13 May 2013

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I’ve been reading some unpublished stuff lately, and like most unpublished stuff, it varies in quality.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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