Strunk & White of the legendary writing guide The Elements of Style were on to something when they advised writers, simply, to “omit needless words.”
This is something I’ve been struggling with myself lately. As you may have guessed, I have just finished writing a book of writing advice. We don’t have a final title yet, but it will be out in November from Writer’s Digest Books. Huzzah! Fiction and non-fiction are two completely different beasts, but economy and simplicity of language are still virtues in both.
As I was writing, I found myself obsessing with simplicity. Sometimes I get an idea in my head and I really want to make it come across clearly but it’s such a tangle in my mind that it can just become much more difficult to see all the garbage that surrounds what I’m really even trying to say and separate out the good stuff.
Sentences like the above ran positively amok in the first few drafts of my manuscript. Then I started to think simply. Read that run-on again. It’s a nightmare. As I got more and more comfortable with writing the book, I took a torch to sentences like it.
I’d rewrite it as, perhaps:
Sometimes I get so tangled up with expressing a core idea I can’t see the wheat for the chaff.
If I wanted to say it without the cliché, I might write:
Sometimes I overthink a core idea and let my explanation overshadow what I mean to say.
This is the same idea, the same information, but a lot more streamlined. All those extra words do not equal extra knowledge. In writing my own manuscript, I developed eagle eyes for excessive language. Now all the notes I give on manuscripts are, “Simplify!” and “You’re saying something simple in a convoluted or roundabout way.”
Here’s what I see when I look at Nightmare Sentence:
Sometimes I get an idea in my head (I should hope so…where else do you get ideas?! This is implied.) and I really want to make it come across clearly (“Make it come across clearly” is flabby, “express” is a stronger verb that’s less colloquial and cuts to the point.) but it’s such a tangle in my mind (I like the “tangle” image but I’ve already mentioned “in my head,” so “in my mind” is not only redundant syntactically (“in my noun”), but in terms of content.) that it can just become much more difficult (“much more adjective” is a writing tic of mine that I notice everywhere, so is “just,” “even,” and “really,” which all feature in this sentence. I swear, if I was left to my own devices, I would just make sentences out of those filler words and nothing else.) to see all the garbage that surrounds what I’m even trying to say and separate out the good stuff (Here I’m restating my point for the billionth time. If I am talking about separating garbage from something, it’s implied that I’m probably trying to get it away from “good stuff,” so I don’t know if that bears repeating.).
God. I exhaust myself. This is obviously a glaringly bad example, choked with needless words–circuitous, and redundant. But I’ve seen many similar “sentence pretzels” in critique, so I know I’m not the only writer who struggles with simplicity, whether in fiction or non.
I’m very grateful for the chance to write a book (and the pressure of a deadline). It has taught me a lot about my own writing…the hard way. While I wish I could save you the trouble and divulge all of my recent insights, I know that a lot of these lessons are things every writer has to learn for himself.