Monday, January 24, 2011

MFA Monday: Economy of Language

"Sometimes the story is not about what is told, but what is not told."

One of the biggest things I've been learning to do in my writing is cutting out the fluff. Sitting in workshops looking at others' writing, it was clear who had this talent down, and who still loved all too many of their words (that would be me). The great writers have the knack of knowing exactly what to say, and when to stop saying it.

We looked at so many paragraphs where writers brilliantly show something, and then ruin it by ending the paragraph telling us what they just showed us. It's as if we don't trust the readers to get it, or trust ourselves as writers to show well enough.

Here's an example from the section of my novel I've been working on this past week. The first is the original:

She lingered in the car for a minute, rubbing her hands in front of the heater, staying a little longer, more for warming up than for not wanting to go in.  Although that was there too. 

The thing is, I'd spent the previous two pages describing her drive back into her hometown, and how she didn't want to be there. It should already have been very clear that she was hesitant about seeing her family again. So I cut it down to this:

She lingered in the car for a minute, rubbing her hands in front of the heater.

It says everything I need it to say, and nothing more. As a paragraph of its own, it now stands as a punctuation point to the drive through town rather than a muddled musing. 

Here's another example:

Home was not the word Kat would use anymore. Home was Chicago, now. With her own apartment and her real friends and her career. And if she thought too much about it, she’d argue that this house, here in Hicktown USA, had never felt like home. 

This is just too wordy. It's like I'm trying too hard to create a history for the reader that they don't need to know yet.

Home was not the word Kat would use. Home was Chicago. And if she thought too much about it, she’d argue that this house, here in Hicktown USA, had never felt like home.

I'm not sure this is perfect. I still may delete that entire last sentence, but I haven't decided on that yet. Still, just a few words here and there make this paragraph more succinct.

Especially in first chapters I have the tendency to want to get the whole story in. Why this girl has come back, and why she left, when this is more interesting for the reader to get in small bits over time. What is not told is more interesting than what is, because it creates tension for the reader, forcing them to wonder why.

Here's a paragraph in the first few pages that I initially used to get the reader to understand why Kat left town and why she harbored such bitterness. She's run into her old best friend, and just found out she's married now to her old boyfriend. This is the original scene:

There was an awkward pause as they both remembered the last time they’d talked, the day Jeb told Kat he’d fallen in love with Lisa and asked for his ring back.  She'd taken it off, the cobalt yarn still wound around the inside so it would fit her finger, and thrown it into the tall grass by the train tracks. “You want your ring, you can go crawl on your hands and knees to find it,” she’d spat at him before she stomped off. She wondered if he’d ever found it.

I decided to cut the entire paragraph and replace it with this:

She noticed that the diamond Lisa wore now was miniscule. Still, it was a diamond ring, and it should have been hers.

In that replacement, I've taken out the backstory (or flashback) and replaced it with something in the present, something that hints at a past but doesn't give it all away.
Learning what to cut isn't an easy thing for me. I've been looking at this novel for a year now, and only now can I see how overwritten places are. Only after some distance can I recognize that words I love need to be deleted.

The trick is to go slowly, see each paragraph on its own, and ask yourself, does this move the story forward? Is it crucial? Does it repeat something I've already made clear? And am I leaving enough room for the reader to breathe or am I dictating exactly the path they must go down?

As writers we need to love words, but love the story more.


  1. I feel like I just attended a workshop. You are so smart. But now I may have to go back and cut many hard-earned words. But I get it.

    Keep more of your MFA wisdom coming!

  2. Here is the cut version of above comment to demonstrate how much I have learned from you:

    You are so smart.

  3. David Long would be proud of you! It's hard to cut so much out, but once you accept it, it's kind of fun, eh?

  4. Jessie - you are so funny!

    Tabitha - that's the best compliment I could get!! :) It is pretty fun. I'm getting such a kick slashing words and seeing how much better it magically becomes.

  5. Great post! I give too much info up front too...and like you said, it's tough slashing words, but if they are redundant they have to go...I have a file I named The Graveyard so that my cut words can rest in peace... ;)

  6. Deleted scenes.

    Thats what I call the file for whole paragraphs and lines I really hate to get rid of.

    I still like the part about throwing that ring... Think you could work that in somewhere for me? Haha

  7. I like the idea of a Graveyard File. I don't keep separate files of deleted scenes or lines, but I always keep my old drafts, so I can go back and see what's in them that I've cut.

    That ring will probably show up later, when Jeb does. :) I love that visual image of the yarn around the ring, and it hurling into the long Texas grass. :)

  8. That is some great wisdom and really Jessie said it so well. Makes me want to take another stab at editing.

  9. I love what you did with the ring. It's so powerful now!

    I'm in my third round of revisions, and definitely aiming to cut. As Strunk would say: "Omit needless words!"

  10. The edit on the ring line is excellent. The sentence 'jumps' now creating the question 'why should it have been hers?' and 'why isn't it?'. I'm still learning the balance between not enough and too much. This is very helpful. Thanks Heidi!