Extraneous words slow down the reader. That's obvious; all writers know it. But for years I assumed it meant that needless words kill the reader's interest. Because we all hold attitudes and preconceived notions that interfere with our perceptions it's not surprising that my take on this axiom was not the literal meaning.
But in September of 2008 I finally realized that the reader is literally slowed down because eyes must roam across those black, wiggly shapes called letters. If each letter is a unit of distance, then the reader's eyes must journey farther to cover and interpret a thirty-word sentence than a five word sentence. I jotted the idea into my journal shortly after it entered my mind, searching in vain to find any other lucid ideas to pal around with.
Fewer words allow the reader’s eyes to arrive sooner at the next compelling moment. If the words in between compelling moments are excessive, then it does follow that the reader can lose interest.
For several semesters I’ve been taking a novel class taught by Jim Sallis, a successful writer for over forty years. In his first class of the 2009 spring semester, he and my fellow students critiqued “Casa Grande 2, a chapter from my novel. They exposed pockets of fat in what I'd thought was prose so lean as to be nearly anorexic.
When revising a rough draft, my goal is to always weigh each paragraph, phrase, or word against the “do I really need this?” standard. But if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I've laid truck loads of bricks over the years. I generally read my “final” draft several times, each time stumbling over extraneous words that hide like bugs in the woodwork. Without a word-by-word check, like those bugs, they remain hidden, only to pop out at the worst possible time.
So I vow to conduct a word-by-word search-and-destroy mission to eradicate them. But can I muster the discipline to do such tedious work?
To add to the problem, it's not always clear what's extraneous and what isn't. In a previous semester, I revised a paragraph in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and submitted it to Jim and the class for discussion. This unsolicited chutzpah was entirely my own idea. I'd cut extra words with glee, wielding my pen with, I thought, surgical precision. Jim asked the class what, if anything had been lost. The consensus: no information lost, vital tone lost. Alas writing is more an art than a science.
If you've cut your draft down to 1% body fat you speed your readers to the next compelling part. Now the real challenge comes. You have to create even more of those moments. You have to pull the good stuff out of your subconscious, to tap what Stephen King called “ the boys in the basement.”
SEE "LINKS" ABOVE for Jim Sallis' website and The Three Legged Dog website, a band Jim is a member of. Okay, for you purists, ...a band of which he is a member.
- I've had two short stories and one essay published. I'm currently working on a "coming of age" novel set in the 1960's. I started this blog with the hope that I could share what I've learned/am learning about writing with other people and would get some of the same in return. If you know of anyone who might be interested in such a blog, please let that person or persons know about "The Writing Process." 7-8-12 I haven't worked on the novel for quite some time and doubt that I will take it up again. I'm currently working on a short story that I have high hopes for--or, if you prefer, for which I have high hopes. There is the possibility that I'll try another novel with some of the characters in this short story. Current and probable title: Not a Blind Date