by John M. Floyd
No, this title isn’t a description of the way William Faulkner created most of his stories. I’m referring to tight prose, not tight pro’s.
Long ago I was browsing through YouTube videos and found a clip from an old Leave It to Beaver episode. (In fact I think I used it once, in an earlier CB column.) June and Ward were sitting at the kitchen table with the boys, and the Beaver asked his dad to read over an essay he’d written for school. The paper started off with something like “This is about my father, Mr. Ward Cleaver.”
Ward, reading it aloud, stopped and raised his eyebrows and said, “Mr.?”
Wally said, dead serious: “That counts as a word, Dad.” Beaver nodded his agreement.
How well I remember. Every time we were required to write a paper in school, one of our goals was to make it long. Actually, that was probably our main goal. It had to have a lot of words and a lot of pages—the more the better. When we hoisted the finished result in our hands, it needed to have weight, because weight (in our dim minds) meant substance, importance, significance. To create less would’ve meant we were less creative.
Now, having (hopefully) learned a bit more about writing, I realize the opposite is true. So often, at least when writing fiction, less is better.
Stephen King once said that when a story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone, and get rid of every ounce of excess fat. “This is going to hurt,” he said. “Revising a story down to the bare essentials is a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
I agree. One thing I have found in my years of writing and teaching is that all of us tend to overwrite. In a first draft, that doesn’t matter much. Knock yourself out. But in subsequent drafts, all the extra and ineffective words need to be found and deleted. Each draft should be shorter than the one before it. Jettison anything that sounds repetitious, or does too much explaining. And by repetition I don’t just mean words; writers often repeat thoughts, phrases, etc.—and sometimes only the closest examination will reveal this kind of thing. I think it was Noah Lukeman who said writers should imagine they’re being paid a dollar for every unneeded word (often adjectives and adverbs) that they can find and take out. The result will almost always be a stronger manuscript.
This is one of the reasons that I believe short stories are great practice for those who want to also write novels. In short stories, and of course poetry, not a word can be wasted. “Writing tight” is a necessity.
Stephen King again, from an essay in his book Secret Windows: “The object . . . isn’t to shorten for the sake of shortening but to speed up the pace and make the story fly along.” All of us want to do that.
And this isn’t only true for fiction. Nonfiction too will be better when the writer pares it down, and tightens up all the nuts and bolts.
Which means, I guess, that I should probably stop here.
NOTE: I actually am stopping here: this is my final post at Criminal Brief. Let me just say that I’ve had a wonderful time, and have met some great friends. I’ve learned a lot, about mysteries and about writing, from my fellow columnists and our readers/commenters. Many thanks to JLW and my colleagues, for allowing me to be a part of this group.