One of the strangest things, to my mind, that I’ve learned from writing is the idea of efficiency of language—that is getting one’s message across, not with the fewest words, but with the most precise words.
As Strunk and White put it, in Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences…”
I loved language when I was young.
I cut my teeth on a diet of flowery 19th-century prose from speculative fiction greats such as Edgar Allan Poe, H G Wells and Jules Verne—all of whom were very much enamoured with the English language.
From there, I graduated to multiple-volumed epics of Fantasy and Science Fiction—upward of one million words a hit—where lengthy description and lyrical exposition are common tropes.
While at school, I was instructed in the elements of the sentence and was encouraged to employ as many as possible whenever I set pen to paper.
And so, taking my lead then from these authors and teachers, whenever I wrote I did so with a fanfare of grandiloquence. I wanted to articulate to the world that I was just as clever as those I had read and those from whom I’d learned.
“Be generous with the truth and economical with how you tell it,” writes Mark Tredinnick in his The Little Red Writing Book.
It took many years, and much broadening of my reading horizons, to realise that the best writing—the writing that doesn’t read like writing—is that which is concise and accurate.
Verbs propel sentences. Nouns give them targets.
The more precision a writer can find in either of these elements, the more efficient the writing.
An item that is snatched has so much more energy than an item that is merely grabbed or picked up quickly.
Likewise a cleaver paints a much more vivid picture than a broad-bladed knife or a hatchet knife.
My writing career is still very much in its infancy. So, when I’m drafting, I still resort to profuse descriptions, indulging in copious portions or adjectives and adverbs.
But one of the key things I look for now in later edits is to pare these back, when I can, to a more fitting noun or verb.
It doesn’t always work—sometimes the image is poorer for its lack of descriptor. But when I do get it right, the reading feels so much more tangible, so much more alive.
Good writing should be about accurate communication and not flaunting one’s wordsmithery.
I don’t do blog and I don’t have website. But I do write.
You can find me mostly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/acutemattiosis
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