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Flabby or Plump; Can You Cut Too Deep?

09-05-28a Circo de invierno, Fat Girl Blues

What do you do when a master and a leader in the field give you good information that you just cannot accept?

This week I received some conflicting information that has had me pondering on the basic question of ‘am I prepared to write like that?’.

Very early on in the week I read a post by Mary Jaksch on her site ‘Write to Done’ where she used the teachings of Sol Stein, master editor, to explain how to improve the pace of prose by attacking adjectives and adverbs. The article was Wordflab Surgery: How to Put Your Writing Under the Knife and the two step rule employed is:

1. Remove all adjectives

2. Eliminate dispensable adverbs

Mary is obviously very knowledgeable on writing and Sol is unquestionable. However, I was left with doubts and as I read further it became obvious why this thinking clashed with my own. I will add at this point that Mary and Sol’s ‘rules’ are not as simple as their titles suggest and I am not knocking the wisdom in the concept of cutting flab and of the benefits gained.

No, the problem lies in my personal belief of the worth and importance that any individual word may have when carefully placed in a sentence, that a word may be more artfully placed than just for its dictionary definition. The first commenter in Mary’s post used these rules on a section from JRR Tolkien’s LOTR, which is repeated here:

“Down a long flight of steps the Lady went into a deep green hollow, through which ran murmuring the silver stream that issued from the fountain on the hill. At the bottom upon a low pedestal carved like a branching tree, stood a basin of silver, wide and shallow, and beside it stood a silver ewer. With water from the stream Galadriel filled the basin to the brim, and breathed on it, and when the water was still again she spoke.”

The words ‘long’, ‘deep’, ‘green’, ‘murmuring’, ‘silver’x3, ‘low’, ‘carved like a branching tree’, ‘wide and shallow’ were all selected as flab and therefore of no importance. The tightened paragraph became.

“Down a flight of steps the Lady went into a hollow, through which ran the stream that issued from the fountain on the hill. At the bottom upon a pedestal, stood a basin, and beside it stood a ewer. With water from the stream Galadriel filled the basin to the brim, and breathed on it, and when the water was still again she spoke.”

Maybe you prefer the new paragraph, it is certainly faster paced and then maybe you have another opinion. You probably have already reasoned that I didn’t like the new prose. For me, the cutting has destroyed part of the story.

“Long” and “deep” gave me an indication that the destination was worth the expenditure of the effort travelling to it and so made it more ‘special’ than just a hollow.

“Green” well yes, they were in a forest, what other colour would you have in mind? This adds less than it takes.

“Murmuring” again yes, this adds little but takes attention away from the true focus which is the silver seers bowl.

“Silver” to me brought forth feelings of value, worth, purity, the occult’s triumph over evil. That Tolkien had linked the stream with both of the two vessels stressed the sense of purpose and unity in that place.

‘Low’ another yes, it adds nothing and may distract, after all how low is low?

“Carved like a branching tree” the inference here is of how closely the elves are intertwined with their natural world and it is shown through their artefacts. If the ‘show’ part is removed would we have to put in some ‘telling’?

‘Wide and shallow’ of course you could also remove ‘basin’ and replace it all with dish but that might sound a little 21st century for an elven kingdom. Ok, ‘wide and shallow’ is out as well.

From this you will see that I don’t just see words as an adjective or as an adverb. For me they carry other emotions and connotations, repeat them and they may reinforce a focus in the prose.

Mary’s post points out quite strongly that you must “readmit after testing” some adjectives and there are two exceptions on adverbs which I won’t repeat here. Her post is very good and well worth the read, please do go and have a look.

So what do I do when a master and a leader in the field give me good information that I just cannot accept?

I listen, learn and take it to heart but I use my own judgment on where it is relevant and where not. I implore you, do the same, know your words and why you place them where you do. Please don’t go gung-ho with the scalpel. You might be slaughtering your supporting cast and lobotomising your story for the sake of pace.

Photo; Fat Girl Blues, cc Circo de invierno ~

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4 comments to Flabby or Plump; Can You Cut Too Deep?

  • Carolyn

    I’m with you on this one – there is a massive difference between cutting for precision, and cutting for word reduction.

    A piece of writng is made up of many parts, one of them is the beauty of our language. Using poetic devices can add so much to a piece of writing, if that style is appropriate. A rip em up ‘n shoot em dead action story would have no room for the languid prose of Tolkein for the quoted piece.

    Horses for courses. The important thing is to be aware of the words you are using and the manner you are using them in.

  • Andy Shackcloth

    Very good point about action, as the pace increases there is less or no room for atmosphere, sentence length would shorten, words would be short, white space would increase.
    It is all part of writing for your reader and so sentence content and structure changes depending on the scene content.

    I think I will write on my wall your final words, “The important thing is to be aware of the words you are using and the manner you are using them in.”

  • Hamish MacDonald

    It’s fashionable to cut all modifying words, and I do understand how they can be used in an amateurish way to telegraph intentions to the reader instead of trusting them to ‘get it’ on their own, but slavishly sticking to any rule is the mark of a bureaucrat, not an artist. (Of course the industry is looking for repeatable formulae to ease the consistent manufacture of unobjectionable prose.)

    Yes, we should know these rules. Yes, we should use restraint and not fill our prose with stuffing. But should we elide whole parts of our wonderful language or hobble our stories by leaving out the details of these people, events, and worlds readers are taking time to discover? I’m with you, Andy: no!

  • Andy Shackcloth

    Ah, ‘the industry’ of course. They want clones of what was successful, for it to be “just the same but different”. For them the more certain grey average and not the exhilarating risk.

    I don’t think I want to write “just the same but different”