Saturday, January 1, 2011

Think Twice, Write Once

Current fiction, perhaps due to short attention spans, tends to deal with each story point as it arises, in sequence, rather than waiting for later resolution.  This makes for neatness, perhaps, but is untrue to life. Next time you’re writing, try to remember to leave resolution of at least a few major story points for the end.  Yes, a few readers might accuse you of being fancy or tricking them, but most will appreciate the delayed gratification and perhaps even admire your plotting -- whatever the hell that is.

I'm fascinated, too, by how "concise" is so often translated to "simplistic".  In writing advice, in how-to books, and even in the revered Strunk & White, writers are told to be brief, leading to most choosing simplistic, that being the easiest lowest common denominator to reach by way of brevity.

Short and sweet, they think.  Hemingway wrote good.  He wrote short.  Short is good. 

Concise, though, means to the point, with complex aspects condensed to the most efficient delivery.  “I’m sorry this note is so long,” Lincoln once wrote to Grant; “I did not have time to make it shorter.”  He meant it. 

Boil things down, is another way to say it.  Reduce them to their essence.  From many ingredients, soup.  Cut to the chase, movie directors say.  State the gist and get out quick, briefers are advised.  (This stands somewhat in opposition to “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you just told ‘em,” but one must use bullet statements in each phase, so the gist becomes gristle for them to chew on and mull over.)

Oh, the metaphors.

Yet it is the same regardless how it’s said:  Be concise.  Not brief to the point of underinforming.  Not short the way Procrustes shortened things.  You can saw off what doesn’t fit but you then lose those parts.  Concise includes, brevity can exclude.

So being concise is not always the shortest way of saying something.  Efficient delivery of everything you wish to communicate is the goal. 

Clarity helps.  Being clear means using correct terms, the right words, and the proper vocabulary.  One does not wax erotic by being clinical.  For each notion there is a set of words best suited to express it.  Find those, use them, and avoid reiterating unless it serves the purpose.

We have all suffered from Triplicate Syndrome.  That is when a writer uses three synonyms rather than picking the best.  It is both lazy and a habit, the kind of crutch that reinforces the injury instead of letting it heal.  “His writing leaped, danced, spiraled from the page.”  Which was it?  This image seems, at first glance, vivid, alive, vibrant, but upon another look we see it is actually confused, muddled, cloudy.  Ahem.

Pick one.

Pick the best one.

Cut the rest.

Watch this:  “Don’t be negative,” he said, striving to be as brief as possible.  “State things in a positive way,” she retorted, being longer but clearer.

Phrasing things in a positive manner makes them stand out as clear actions.  Negative phrasing sets up a mental image in which an action must first be imagined, then nullified in some way.  It is complicated, which obscures the point.

Thou shalt not kill, we’re told, but not a word how to avoid it.  Frustration results.

In order to be concise, we must think through what we wish to communicate, reduce it to a clear image, find the right words to express it, and state it positively.  This requires time and work, and practice improves the needed skills.  Making fewer errors, and honing things to precision, reduces the need for rewriting, too; a bonus.

Finally, once we know what we are setting out to do, and how best to do it, we can play with it by, say, delaying resolution of a point or two until the end, gratifying ourselves and rewarding the astute reader.

Think twice, write once.

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