Slash and Burn–Part II

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.

Whew!

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.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Slash and Burn–Part II

  1. LauranceS

    I have read the opening paragraph from Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind” to dozens of people and their reaction is always the same. Their jaws slack open, shoulders move back and eyes widen. It is a wave crashing over them.

    I edited Raymond Chandler’s original paragraph in an attempt to update it to modern tastes, focusing on keep it short and kill all the adverbs and adjectives. Please, tell me what you think.

    Raymond Chandler 1938
    There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anna’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that, every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

    LauranceS 2014
    The Santa Anna winds blew down the mountain passes that night. They curled your hair; made your nerves jump and your skin itch. Those nights, every party ends in a fight; wives feel the edge of a knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a bar.

    I know what I think of my revision, it rather sucks. My results have about five percent of the emotional impact of Chandler’s. Is there no room in today’s market for highly descriptive prose? If Chandler brought “Red Wind” to a modern editor, would they insist that he cut it down until it resembles my drivel?
    LauranceS
    P.S. I love Dick Francis’ writing.

  2. Yeah, you removed the guts from that passage. As I showed in my examples, cleaning a sentence of adjectives and adverbs can leave it flat. Editing walks a fine line between eviscerating a passage that flows well and taming unruly prose.

    As for the Chandler paragraph, it contains adjectives that are chosen deliberately and precisely to carry the imagery that Chandler wanted. It’s tight. It’s effective. It’s good.

    Editing it would kill it, as you did. Just as robo-editing Poe kills the effect of his prose. Can you imagine what would become of Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES in the hands of a robo-editor? (I shudder!) Occasionally my books have suffered from an editor’s slash and burn, leaving only stubble behind–much to the story’s detriment.

    I’m not recommending that descriptive prose be struck entirely from our manuscripts. I was just trying to show folks various methods of tightening their work.

    -Deb

  3. LauranceS

    My apologies for implying that you would approve of my ax job on Raymond Chandler. That is not what I intended. My post was unclear. I intended to ask if the publishing industry is pushing authors toward the extinction of descriptive prose.
    Specifically, I was thinking of the accolades for Ken Bruen. If descriptive prose were body fat his books would be death camp survivors. It seems that an increasing percentage of newly published novels are skeleton prose instead of lean and fit prose.
    If Ray Bradbury were an unpublished author today, would most editors of 2014 insist that he eliminate most of the description of Green Town and the October weather in order to speed up the pace of the book?
    Thanks
    LauranceS

  4. Yes, I think the publishing industry is indeed pushing us to skeleton prose that’s as dead as dry leaves. And my simile in the preceding sentence would probably be cut.

    I shudder to think what would happen to Ray Bradbury today if he were an untried author trying to break in.

    Alas,
    Deb

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