“…they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Matthew 6:7
My husband claims that his high school English teacher was an older woman who valued length over substance in written assignments. The more adjectives, the better the grade. She praised long, rambling sentences and equated high word count with effort. True story.
It’s amazing how many of my students over the years have harbored similar misconceptions. I can’t tell you how many creative writing pieces have been bulging at the seams with clichés (see what I did there?) and unnecessary descriptors. Middle school girls are especially prone to gush onto paper. Their heroines, for example, will feature “long, flowing, silky, blonde, wavy hair.” A story setting might be “dark, foggy, cold, damp” and “smell like rotting logs.” They want to throw their entire literary backpacks at the reader in one bulky bundle.
That approach may have worked for the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens. Pre-twentieth century authors didn’t have as much competition as writers do now. Without TVs or personal electronic devices, readers in the eighteen-hundreds had to imagine pictures in stories instead of watching the videography. They appreciated detailed descriptions that helped them mentally “see” settings and characters.
Today’s readers, on the other hand, are more visually oriented. They expect instant communication, real-time news coverage, interactive media engagement, and graphics-enhanced everything. When people do read, they appreciate writing that is concise and to the point. Wading through pages of scenic description makes them impatient. For that reason, an essential component contemporary writers must consider is economy of language.
So What Does Economy of Words Mean, Exactly?
The focus of this concept is using fewer strong words instead of many weak ones. In my next few posts, we will explore each of these areas in more detail:
1. Show rather than tell. Exchange a string of adjectives for strong verbs. For example, change “the man spoke angrily” to “the man growled, hissed, ranted, or raged.”
2. Avoid vague qualifiers. Excise limp modifiers such as very, quite, really, actually, and pretty from your writing and replace them with concrete imagery. Consider the difference between these two descriptions:
a) “He noticed her as soon as she entered the room. She was quite lovely.”
b) “Her radiant smile drew his eye as she entered the room.”
3. Choose active voice over passive voice. Excessive use of passive voice saps energy from writing. Exchange “She was allowed only a few minutes to make her decision” with “She had to decide within minutes.” Almost every middle and high school student I’ve ever taught has struggled with this concept. I will devote an entire post to active and passive voice.
4. Beware of redundancy. Avoid using the same words several times in successive sentences. Change up your vocabulary choices to prevent your writing from becoming stale and predictable.
5. Vary sentence length. A string of compound/complex sentences can bog a reader down. On the other hand, too many brief, choppy lines can feel percussive. Break up long phrases with shorter ones to establish a more appealing rhythm.
These principles are not new or original, but they are foundational to effective writing in almost any genre. In posts to come, I will discuss these, and others, in detail and offer some practice exercises for each. If you share my goal of becoming a more competent communicator, I hope you’ll join me for this informal writing workshop. Practice may not make us perfect, but it will certainly make us better!