It’s one thing to declare, “Thou shalt always tighten thy prose!” and another thing to accomplish it.
I’ve heard all the tricks and advice. Haven’t you?
My favorite is, Imagine you’re being charged by the word instead of paid by the word. What would you eliminate?
Dick Francis was one of the leanest writers out there. His mystery novels were never superficial, but he possessed a knack for conveying vivid imagery, taut conflict, and internal anguish without gush or flowery sentences.
Blame that on his highly competitive nature. According to his autobiography, when he stopped riding as a steeplechase jockey and began writing for a racing publication, his editor would mark up his copy. Francis didn’t like that, so he learned to trim his words and convey his meaning precisely. His aim was to deliver copy that the editor couldn’t mark or shorten. By the time Francis turned his hand to writing mystery novels, his distinctive style had developed.
Every day, I fight the battle over baroque, excessively complicated and convoluted sentences, the likes of which are being displayed to you at this moment in a dizzying display of my ability to write the most overblown rhetoric and purple prose possible.
I LOVE sentences like that!
Unfortunately for me, almost no one else wants to read such stuff. So I let myself go in rough drafts and then I edit, edit, edit, burn, slash, cut, tighten, grumble, and edit.
Let’s use the above sentence as a little exercise. I believe it’s 42 words long, nearly twice the length an effective sentence should be.
First, we’ll label its parts:
Every day, I fight the battle over baroque [adj.], excessively [adv.] complicated [adj.] and convoluted [adj.] sentences, the likes of which [archaic phrasing] are being displayed [passive verb] to you at this moment [circumlocution] in a dizzying [adj.] display [repetition] of my ability to write the most [qualifier] overblown [adj.] rhetoric [incorrect word choice] and purple [adj.] prose possible.
#1–Use fewer words to convey your meaning.
Daily, I fight using baroque, excessively complicated and convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a dizzying display of writing the most overblown rhetoric and purple prose.
#2–Weed out as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.
Daily, I fight using
complicated, convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.
Oops! If I take away those adjectives, there’s no meaning left. Better put them back in, for now.
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.
[The sentence is growing shorter. It's not better ... yet.]
#3–Shun passive verbs.
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.
#4–Check your copy for echoes.
It’s easy to get caught up in the meaning of your prose and reach for the same word more than once in a paragraph or page without realizing it.
Always look for repetition. There’s more of it in your copy than you may think.
Wait! Did I just repeat a point?
Let’s move on to the example:
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in an example of writing rhetoric and purple prose.
#5–Are your word choices correct?
The shorter and clearer sentences become, the more an imprecise vocabulary will stand out.
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in an example of diction and purple prose.
#6–Is there flow?
Once you’ve whittled a sentence or paragraph down as demonstrated above, there may not be much left. Or the thing may lack smoothness. It may not convey your meaning the way you intended. It may have become a lousy sentence.
At this point, I ask myself if I should delete the sentence entirely.
If I need it, then I’ll correct bad flow by rewriting the whole thing, taking care to remain simple and clear.
I struggle daily against writing the complicated sentences best described as purple prose.
It’s clear, but it seems stilted.
So how about this?
I face a daily struggle against writing what’s known as purple prose.
I’ve gone from 42 words to 13 to 12. My meaning is clear. I’ve retained a colorful term. A flowery sentence that once read like something from a bad Victorian novel has become concise and modern.
Best of all, even I understand what the heck I’ve been trying to say.