Getting the Words Right: Less is More

Getting the Words Right: Less is MoreToday I’m going to approach the theme of getting the words right from a different angle. Why do writers so often get the words wrong? And I’m not just talking about bad writers. Why did it take Hemingway thirty-nine drafts to get his ending right?

Sometimes the perfect word is easy to find, but those cases are rare. More often we flail at an idea, ending up with half a dozen words that, combined, give the impression we’re aiming for. We take a noun and verb that spring to mind, then tack on a few adjectives and adverbs to bring the overall effect into line with the pictures in our heads.

That’s the problem. When we fail to find the right word, we press-gang a bunch of replacements into service. Not only is our writing less precise, it runs the risk of becoming complicated and flowery.

In writing, less is more.

Browne & King, in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, make the point succinctly:

“When you use two words, a weak verb and an adverb, to do the work of one strong verb, you dilute your writing and rob it of its potential power.”

They are not the only ones to warn against the evils of adverbs. Elizabeth Lyon, in Manuscript Makeover, agrees. On adverbs:

“Too often, writers use these to beef up weak verbs. Your goal should be to make verbs strong enough to do the work themselves and kill off your adverbs.”

What do these adverbs look like in the wild? A common example would be when a character has to travel on foot from here to there. What could be simpler? They walk. But how do they walk? If it’s a nice day and they aren’t in a hurry they might walk slowly. Then they remember they have an appointment and realise they are late, so they begin to walk more hurriedly. Finally, the clock tower chimes and they walk as quickly as they can.

Walk is a poor choice of verb in each case. Instead of walking slowly, why not stroll? Instead of walking hurriedly, why not bustle or hurry? Instead of walking as quickly as you can (an adverbial phrase), why not rush or trot? Picking appropriate verbs leads to fewer adverbs and stronger writing.

(Adverbs are particularly troublesome when writing dialogue, and I’ve covered that topic here.)

Adjectives are, if anything, even more despised than adverbs. Mark Twain is often quoted regarding adjectives, “when in doubt, strike it out.” He tempered this advice in a letter:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”

Elizabeth Lyon also advises us to use adjectives “sparingly and consciously.” She goes on to say, “overuse indicates the need to find more precise nouns and to show rather than tell.”

The list of adjective detractors continues. Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, advises starting simply when pruning your prose: “Most adjectives and adverbs are dispensable. The easiest ones to dispense with are ‘very’ and ‘quite.’” Or, as Strunk & White put it in The Elements of Style, “rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

That doesn’t mean we should eliminate adjectives entirely from our writing. Some well placed adjectives elevate our prose. Strunk & White again:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power… In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.”

So how do we decide which adjectives to delete and which to retain? Sol Stein gives three criteria for keeping an adjective:

  • it is necessary
  • it stimulates the reader’s curiosity and thereby helps move a story along
  • it helps the reader visualise the precise image you want to project

All of this is good advice on how to avoid using the wrong word, or combination of words, in place of the right word. But how do we find the right word?

Strunk & White suggest we, “prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.” Sol Stein vouches for what he calls particularity. “It is not just detail that distinguishes good writing, it is detail that individualizes.”

We should go forth, and strive for particularity.