I recently looked back on a story I had written in high school and got a lot of laughs out of it. While there were some good ideas and even some passages I was proud of, there was a lot that needed work. I’m proud that I’ve moved on in skill from those days, but also proud of where I came from. I’d like to think there was potential in those pages! But I did learn a few things about clumsy writing and how to strip it ruthlessly from your fiction. It boils down to two basic ideas that you should keep in mind when both writing and editing.
Pare Down Unnecessary Words
The biggest mistake young writers make is trying to show off their vocabularies simply because they can. Often, the biggest word or most elaborate phrase does not match the mood, tone, or voice of the story. It doesn’t fit the character, the setting, or the emotion, yet we still use the most complex phrase or word we know because we think it will make us seem sophisticated. Experienced writers learn that good writing is actually a process of weeding these things out. Here’s an example of a sentence from my high school sentence:
It was, not without trepidation, that he turned his tennis shoes to Jameston Books, where he had worked before leaving for college.
What are your guesses about what is wrong with this sentence? I start to wince when I reach “not without trepidation”, which may be the clunkiest way possible to say that the character is nervous. Why not just say that he’s nervous? You are also allowed a chuckle at the bit of alliteration I wasn’t able to resist (“turned his tennis shoes”). A more efficient way to say that would just having him walking or going to Jameston Books. But trepidation is a word that just doesn’t fit in this sentence.
Pare Down Unnecessary Ideas!
Writers don’t just go over the top with their words — they spell out too much with their ideas. Show, don’t tell is an ancient adage, but it can’t be restated enough. Here’s an example of a sentence where I couldn’t resist saying exactly what I wanted the idea to be, rather than letting the reader figure it out:
“Arthur! David! Were you buying that book?” he demanded, with twenty years of solitude, bitterness, and fear coiled up in his voice.
First, this sentence is pretty laughably melodramatic, but it’s also a bad idea to be saying so much outright about what I think is going on. One writing teacher I had called this “Wonder Years syndrome.” If you remember the old tv show “The Wonder Years” (a terrific show, but with a few flaws), the show would often have a touching moment between characters. That was all we needed to understand what was going on, but then a voiceover would come in and say something like “With that smile, I knew she didn’t need me to protect her anymore.” We the viewers already knew this — we didn’t need to be told! Yet the temptation for writers to make themselves understood very clearly often leads to saying too much.
It comes from an inferiority complex, I believe; writers don’t trust the power of the scenes they’ve written, so they rush in to explain when no explanation is necessary. So when writing and revising, remember these two steps: strip out clumsy words and phrases, and strip out those clumsy, unnecessary ideas too.