Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Verbal Fitness by Andy Scheer

If the ads in your newspapers this weekend were anything like the ones in mine, you couldn't miss the message. It's a new year—time to get in shape. You've indulged yourself too long. Now buy this gadget (like the kind you see everywhere at garage sales) and you'll become slim and happy.

If only it were that easy. Our lifestyle (with the physique it produces) consists of countless tiny habits. Try to change them all at once and we're doomed to fail. But focus on one or two little things, and maybe there's hope.

The same goes for our writing. Extra words can easily creep into our prose—then go unnoticed as we edit. What's the harm? But sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, they add up. Those extra, superfluous, unnecessary, redundant words—that duplicate a point you've already made—act like verbal flab.

So in case your New Year's fitness resolution includes more vigorous writing, let me highlight two habits that often bloat our prose:

Subtle redundancies. He blinked his eyes. (What else would he blink?) She paced back and forth. (Not up and down?) Sometimes we even write triples: He unlocked the door with the key in his hand. Unless your character is a burglar or a spy, why add obvious details?

Double dialogue attributions. If the context doesn't already tell your readers who is speaking, then supplement the spoken words with either a dialogue tag (Melanie said) or a “beat”/action tag (Melanie put on her coat). But don't make a habit of using both: “Let's take a walk,” Melanie said, putting on her coat.

Two little writing habits—easy to catch as you edit your drafts.

Try looking for just one in your writing this week. Then next week. And even the week after. It might become a new habit. Then instead of having to wear baggy sweats, your prose just might look good in Spandex.


Cora Allen said...

Good post, Andy. This is one of those little hints that can save tons of time when making revisions if we don't let those extra words creep into a rough draft. Thanks for the reminder.

Rick Barry said...

Well said, and worth saying. I believe I'm making progress in spotting and liposuctioning my verbal flab. Somehow, though, it's easier to spot this flaw in others' writing than in my own. Thanks for pertinent reminder.

Diana said...

Well said Andy, two pet peeves of mine right here.
Happy New Year and here is to skinny and tighter prose!

Kathryn Elliott said...

"What else would he blink?" Still giggling. Great post, Andy.

Andy Scheer said...

The same goes for nodding and shrugging...