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Which style of writing is best?
June 29, 2006 2:42 PM   Subscribe

HelpMyWritingFilter: Am I overthinking or do I actually need these extra words of clarification when it comes to writing fiction?

I've recently become aware of an awful [IMHO] habit I seem to have acquired of sacrificing a brevity-style of writing and reworking sentences so they have little "extra" words to help the reader. Confused yet? The examples below are the first paragraph of a fantasy novel - Exhibtion A is what I wrote originally and was initially happy with, B is what I expanded it to upon revision. In my heart I don't feel like I NEED those extra words - but yet I feel obliged to put them in for the sake of the reader [or judging editor], to aid their understanding.


EXHIBIT A:
Druzy clutched the vial, its contents still hot. She crouched in the undergrowth, breath ragged, never taking her eyes from the mansion beyond. Sentries scurried about its courtyards in search of her, and – she had to squint through the dusk to make sure – yes, they made immediately for the stables. Torches increasingly lit the gloom. Now she could make out the family members hurrying to follow.

She retreated into the treeline as adrenaline jangled her body. “Steady,” Druzy whispered, controlling her breathing. Her hands shook and she forced herself to calm down.

“Have I done it?” She lifted the vial, hearing its contents slosh. Though it was night, there was no mistaking the white fluid. A smile curled the side of her face.



EXHIBIT B:
Druzy clutched the vial close to her chest, its contents still warm, spreading through the glass to her palm. She crouched lower in the undergrowth, breath ragged, never taking her eyes from the mansion beyond the rise. Sentries scurried about the courtyards and – she had to squint through the dusk to make sure – yes, they made immediately for the stables. Torches increasingly lit the gloom and now she could make out the white‑robed family members hurrying out to follow.

She retreated further into the treeline and clapped her hand to her forhead as adrenaline jangled her body. “Steady, steady,” Druzy whispered, attempting to control her breathing. Her hands shook from excitement and she forced herself to calm down.

“Have I really done it?” She lifted the vial, hearing its contents sloshing about. Even though it was night, there was no mistaking the precious white fluid. A proud smile curled one side of her face.




Yes, yes, they're minute changes/tweaks at best, but they're really beginning to bother me and stall my daily writing. I know I need help from people who know what they're doing and won't sugarcoat advice. I've read nearly every style guide out there, so I'm just asking for the hive mind's opinion on style - I don't care if you like the actual [fantasy] content or not. I've heard the usual guidance of "Zomg join a critique group/buy book XYZ /etc" all before and have followed it as best I can.

So penultimately, are those words needed or am I fine without?
posted by Chorus to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think the second one is a tighter version, the extra words aren't necessary but I don't think it's hurting it.
posted by agregoli at 2:45 PM on June 29, 2006


“Have I done it?” She lifted the vial, hearing its contents slosh. Though it was night, there was no mistaking the white fluid. A smile curled the side of her face.

is way better than

“Have I really done it?” She lifted the vial, hearing its contents sloshing about. Even though it was night, there was no mistaking the precious white fluid. A proud smile curled one side of her face.

if you ask me. Fewer adjectives, so the ones that are there have more impact.

But a lot of this is subjective, and standards are going to vary a lot between genres. For right now, to be honest, I'd just write until you finish a draft and then worry about cleaning it up later.
posted by COBRA! at 2:48 PM on June 29, 2006


Upon initial reading I definitely like B better. I don't think it adds anything to the readers understanding of what's happening but it certainly seems to flow better for me.
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:49 PM on June 29, 2006


I prefer "B" as well, because it's less choppy. Though it could use some tightening up (that is, a compromise between "A" and "B" would be ideal), the main point is that you need to vary the structure and rhythm of your sentences. Version "A" is too monotonous.
posted by macrone at 2:54 PM on June 29, 2006


I like the second one for the most part, and it's not the adjectives that I think might be a problem, it's the sentence structure. You have lots of "Subject verbed, verbing blah blah blah" sentences.

Druzy clutched the vial close to her chest, its contents still warm, spreading through the glass to her palm.

She crouched lower in the undergrowth, breath ragged, never taking her eyes from the mansion beyond the rise.

“Steady, steady,” Druzy whispered, attempting to control her breathing.

She lifted the vial, hearing its contents sloshing about.


That's what make it sound a bit clunky or added-on to me. They start to seem like you're literally tacking clauses on to existing sentences. You lose the overall rhythm of the piece.

The details in the second gave me a better visual idea of what was happening, but the more varied sentence structure in the first, including lots of short sentences, made the first one more pleasant to read.
posted by occhiblu at 2:56 PM on June 29, 2006


(And on non-preview, macrone's comment right above mine is funny. One person's monotony is another's rhythmic prose, I guess.)
posted by occhiblu at 2:57 PM on June 29, 2006


Rereading, I see that a lot of the -ings are in the first version, too. I think maybe they stand out more to me in the second version because I feel like I'm wading through too many dependent clauses.
posted by occhiblu at 2:58 PM on June 29, 2006


I do agree that some of the sentences flow better in version B. But I thoguht a little more about what it is that doesn't work with some of your additions: you're adding unneccessary text. We don't need to be told that it's a proud smile curling across her face; it's better to hear that she's smiling, and infer as a reader that it's because she's proud.
posted by COBRA! at 2:58 PM on June 29, 2006


I like B, it comes down not to your own education, but that of the reader.

Ask yourself: Who am I writing for? What is my audience? What do I know that I want them to find out?

I am the producer of a radio show, and every time I write a piece for the show, I have to remember that the things I know and what the audience knows are very different. So I write to be openly descriptive, this gives me room to be more colloquial later on. Think of that method: short, helpful opening, then get into the meat of it.
posted by parmanparman at 3:00 PM on June 29, 2006


Write first, edit later. It's normal to pad out a prior draft of a work, as it may help refine your inner voice, or add ideas you may wish to use in a later chapter or sentence.

Obsessing on the expent of exposition could lead to a "centipede's dilemma", but using the additional material for story outling and character development can serve as a great boon.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:12 PM on June 29, 2006


...but using the additional material (as a sidebar) for story outling and character development can serve as a great boon. Heh.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:14 PM on June 29, 2006


I prefer A. B reminds me of pulp sci-fiction and romance (a la Mills and Boon). I agree with COBRA! that I like to work out what's going on myself and not be hit over the head with it. And a half smile, is she sneering or has she had a stroke? Might it be worthwhile to go through A and take out as many words as you can?
posted by b33j at 3:16 PM on June 29, 2006


A is much better, to my mind. If you're not writing marketing copy I think you should write what sounds good to you.

I'd alter one of the three "/make/made for" structures in the first paragraph, and I'd take the "made for the stables" into a different tense ("they were making for the stables").

I really like the bit about the smile "curling her face."
posted by macinchik at 3:17 PM on June 29, 2006


I like a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B. I enjoy a litany of descriptive words to further push the scene you're attempting to translate, but I could do without extra "words;" though better than "even" though, for example.

Brevity is good, but never at the cost of your vision.
posted by Mach3avelli at 3:17 PM on June 29, 2006


I like A *much* better. Calling it a "proud smile" puts my teeth on edge a little, and imagining her clapping her hand to her forehead is a little cartoony, and removes me from the action.

The first one seems much tighter and cleaner, and the clipped wording much better fits the rythym of the scene.

This is from a reader of much fantasy, but definitely not a writer.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 3:18 PM on June 29, 2006


I like A.

Show, don't tell. Show me that the white fluid is precious from whatever it does and from the reactions of others to its presence. Don't just tell me it's precious.
posted by frogan at 3:21 PM on June 29, 2006


Okay, I'm not going to give an opinion either way, because here's the thing: you can't let it stall you. You just write, like Anne Lamott says, shitty first drafts and then worry about the other bits later. Sure, one version might be better than the other, depending on your market, but right now the important thing is to get the damn thing written. You can always go back later, with fresh eyes, and edit it.
posted by sugarfish at 3:30 PM on June 29, 2006


Writing is re-writing. So, write. Then, re-write. The one shouldn't stop the other, if you know where your plot and characters are going. But if you're the type of writer who gets it down as they themselves "get it," this methodical approach doesn't work, and you need to work on your creative method if you're going to be able to grind out page count.

As for giving proper weight to description, I have a couple of thoughts. Detail is somewhat genre dependent. Generally, it's plot and action that carry the reader through a story. Character A does this, thinks that, reacts to Character B, and this creates Situation C, which requires Resolution 1 involving Character C and Prop IV, etc., etc. But if you are writing romance, detective, or fantasy genres, your audience expects more description to assist their visualization. It's slow to write good description, because you have to imagine in far more detail, and then choose, as you do in real life, what of the imagined details are important enough to note, and moreover, relate to the reader. What's the point of conjuring up a full noir scene, if you can't be sure the reader is going to make the streets just wet enough for swirls of vapor to rise randomly, obscuring the muzzle flash from the alley, at just the critical moment? But you can't describe all the vapor swirls, or you'll never get to the muzzle flash; ultimately, you have to trust your reader's imagination, and give them enough to work with, but no more.

So it's always a balancing act, and you have to choose, I think, the details that are vital, from the details that aren't, unless you want to spend some effort getting the word count to carry more detail. There's always a re-write that will say more and say it better, but you only have one lifetime.

Myself, I like B better than A, but they are both passively voiced and somewhat verbose. Try writing in the active voice, and describing only what is of essential interest to the character(s) which have the dramatic focus.
posted by paulsc at 3:59 PM on June 29, 2006


A strong vote for A from me. A few details (the white robes, for instance) are interesting, but most of what you've "fleshed out" doesn't really need the fleshing.
posted by brundlefly at 4:10 PM on June 29, 2006


If I may (version A--I don't care for B much):
Your original in italics, excisions struck, additions bold, editorial direction in brackets.

Druzy clutched the vial, its contents still hot. She crouched in the undergrowth, breath ragged, never taking her eyes from the mansion beyond. Sentries scurried out about its courtyards in search of her, and – she had to squint through the dusk to make sure – yes, they made immediately for the stables. Torches increasingly lit the gloom. Now she could make out the family members hurrying to follow.

She retreated further into the treeline as adrenaline jangled[find a new word here] her body. [“Steady,” Druzy whispered, controlling her breathing. Her hands shook and she forced herself to calm down.] Previous two sentences tell me the same thing. Lose one.

“Have I done it?” She lifted the vial, hearing its contents slosh. Though it was night, there was no mistaking the white fluid. A smile smirk? sneer? curled the side of her face.


Generally speaking, if it canshould. Tons of good practice-y advise above.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:13 PM on June 29, 2006


Overall, I think A is marginally better, though the "Torches lit... now she could..." bit is better as one sentence. And what occhiblu said about variation in the sentence structure.
posted by teleskiving at 4:16 PM on June 29, 2006


Less is more.
posted by Rash at 4:21 PM on June 29, 2006


Good bits in both, so I combined them into this (with one quick word change and shift):

Druzy clutched the vial, its contents still hot. She crouched in the undergrowth, breath ragged, never taking her eyes from the mansion beyond the rise. Sentries scurried about its courtyards in search of her, and – she had to squint through the dusk to make sure – yes, they made immediately for the stables. More torches lit the gloom. Now she could make out the white-robed family members hurrying to follow.

She retreated into the treeline as adrenaline jangled her body. “Steady,” Druzy whispered, controlling her breathing. Her hands shook and she forced herself to calm down.

“Have I done it?” She lifted the vial, its contents sloshing about. Even though it was night, there was no mistaking the precious white fluid. A smile curled one side of her face.


I'm not a fan of adverbs unless you really, really need them. But anything that describes the scene, gives us clues to how someone's reacting to something (without actually saying, "Yes, she reacted this way") is good.
posted by RakDaddy at 4:21 PM on June 29, 2006


I prefer A, though some of the details in B are worth keeping... but, adrenaline? Is this not just slightly anachronistic?
posted by Jeanne at 4:30 PM on June 29, 2006


Sentries don't scurry, unless Druzy was shrunk to the size of an ant, and the sentries are ants and the mansion an ant mount.

---

Druzy crouched in the undergrowth, breath ragged, clutching the hot vial close to her chest. Her eyes locked on the mansion beyond the rise, while sentries skittered about its courtyards in search of her, and--she had to squint through the dusk to make sure-–yes, they made immediately for the stables, their torches igniting the gloom. Presently she could make out the white-robed family members scrambling to follow.

She retreated further into the treeline. “Steady, now...” Druzy whispered to herself, trying to control her breathing. Adrenaline surged through her veins, down to her violently shaking hands.

“Have I done it?” She lifted the vial to the moonlight, and a smile curled the side of her face. There was no mistaking the precious white fluid inside.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:07 PM on June 29, 2006


I've recently become aware of an awful [IMHO] habit I seem to have acquired of sacrificing a brevity-style of writing and reworking sentences so they have little "extra" words to help the reader.

Someone said, "Let your readers add 2 plus 2 and they'll love you forever." Good advice.

"To help the reader," you say. "To aid their understanding." Ugh. Don't condescend.
posted by cribcage at 5:11 PM on June 29, 2006


I like what Smart Dalek said.

Make sure you write the whole darn piece, whatever it is, then go back later on and make it pretty/verbose/abrupt/embroidered/taciturn or whatever seems best in light of the whole work.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:12 PM on June 29, 2006


I also like Smart Dalek and sugarfish's advice. We don't know what the rest of the story's like. We just have guesses.
posted by furiousthought at 5:23 PM on June 29, 2006


A is better. B is just padded unnecessarily.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:35 PM on June 29, 2006


Penultimately is second to last, not some heightened form of ending a sentence or emphasizing a question.

If the vial is still warm, I don't see the warmth spreading through the glass before it spreads into the holder. It was already in the glass.

I agree sentries don't scurry. A person doesn't squint through the dusk, they squint to see through the dusk. Retreated into the treeline doesn't seem right. A treeline is just that, it is not a forest, just a border and retreating further into a border doesn't make sense. In other words, I find the imprecision of the words to be the problem.

As for making it longer, it is nice to be clearer, but say "retreated further" if you mean to make the point that she was already among the trees and wanted to go deeper among the trees. If you want to say "retreated" that's fine also, it's just saying something different.

I agree about varying the sentence structure.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:55 PM on June 29, 2006


B flows better, but it needs fewer adjectives. Keep the structure but use sparser prose, e.g.:

Druzy clutched the vial close to her chest, its contents still warm, spreading through the glass to her palm. She crouched lower in the undergrowth, breath ragged, never taking her eyes from the mansion beyond the rise. Sentries scurried about the courtyards. and – s She had to squinted through the dusk to make sure – yes, they made immediately for the stables. Torches increasingly lit the gloom. and now She could make out the white‑robed family members hurrying out to follow.

She retreated further into the treeline and clapped her hand to her forhead as adrenaline jangled her body. “Steady, steady,” Druzy whispered, attempting to control her breathing. Her hands shook from excitement and she forced herself to calm down.

“Have I really done it?” She lifted the vial. , hearing i Its contents sloshing sloshed about. Even t Though it was night, there was no mistaking the precious white fluid. A proud smile curled one the side of her face.

posted by nyterrant at 10:30 PM on June 29, 2006


depends, you see. 'white-robed family members' implies some sort of cult. Just plan ol' 'family members' is...well, it is what it is.

but the others are right.

jus write.
posted by ryecatcher at 10:31 PM on June 29, 2006


Forget what other people think about it (as much), that's your style and feels most natural. If the publisher doesn't like it, you've got the wrong publisher. The right publisher will love it.

I personally think Anne Rice describes just way way way too much, but I'm not her publisher.
posted by vanoakenfold at 1:25 AM on June 30, 2006


Not an answer per se but a pointer - do you know about the Metafilter writer's group?
posted by handee at 2:41 AM on June 30, 2006


I like them both, but B brought me more into the story. I think it's true that it flowed more. But why not use each style when it's appropriate? To me, your second example felt like the character's emotions were moving quickly and intensely, while the first one focused me more on the environment.

The word "precious" stuck out to me as unnecessary in the second example. I'd cut it. Maybe I just don't like the word, but it is also redundant.
posted by amtho at 5:22 AM on June 30, 2006


I scanned the answers, which I think are good, but I don't think anyone has mentioned this:

Druzy clutched the vial close to her chest, its contents still warm, spreading through the glass to her palm.

Is it me, or does that last phrase not only sound tacked on, as occhiblu pointed out, but also actually make no sense?

What is spreading through the glass to her palm? The actual contents of the vial? (Not knowing what the contents are, I suppose that's possible but seems unlikely). Or is it the warmth? Because "warm" here is not a noun. It's describing the contents. "Warm" cannot spread. What makes a phrase sound especially tacked on is when it's obvious that it's only there to sound nice. This phrase, as it is, actually doesn't mean anything. That you used that sentence structure over and over (as many do), hammers it home: you just like how it sounds. I'd say take it out, save it for a sentence where it really fits.

Agree that you should keep your audience in mind. I myself like simplicity. If I were your editor, I'd suggest:

Druzy clutched the vial to her chest. Its contents were still warm.

All the information is still there.
posted by lampoil at 6:26 AM on June 30, 2006


As a reader of many writing aid books, you know that one piece of common advice is cut, cut, cut. It's important to know what to cut, however, and what to keep/add to.

Torches increasingly lit the gloom and now she could make out the white‑robed family members hurrying out to follow.

In the first exhibit, the family members' clothing was not described, here we see they are clad in white robes. I don't see a problem with this addition at all; you're adding to the general atmosphere and creating a picture for the reader.

Her hands shook from excitement and she forced herself to calm down.

In the first exhibit, her hands simply shook, sans "from excitement." Don't explain that she's excited, let her shaking hands illustrate that. You know this as "show don't tell." The second part of the sentence could use some of this.

I would make more suggestions about varying sentence structure, diction, etc., but that's my quick and dirty answer to your specific question: write, revise, and know which words to keep and which to toss when you revise again. And again and again and again.

And again.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 6:46 AM on June 30, 2006


I much prefer A. Clearly you do too. Go with that feeling. Leave a bit of it up to the reader instead of spelling everything out.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:15 AM on June 30, 2006


One piece of advice from Strunk & White's Elements of Style is 'eliminate unnecessary words'. I don't live by it, but I think it's good advice.

The challenge is deciding which words are necessary.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:49 PM on June 30, 2006


I like A better; its staccato pacing highlights the fact that this is a moment of high drama.

I don't like 'fluid', though. Try a more fantastickal word, like 'chrism' or 'unguent' or 'reagent' or something.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:21 PM on June 30, 2006


PLEASE don't try "a more fantastickal word."

I like the first one--it's perfect for a first draft beginning. Let it go.

I'm offering advice from years of published experience. I'm currently working on my 13th book and am contracted for several more.

My favorite method for letting go is to print out every page as I write it. Stack them up next to you, shuffle back through to jot down notes if you like, but DO NOT go back and revise.

WRITE THE BOOK.

Then get up, walk away for a week or two or more. Then sit back down and start on page one. Don't revise, just read and make marks where you're not satisfied. I like doing this in hard copy, outside with a latte and a dog and red pen.

Go all the way through. Do not rewrite, just make notes.

Then, revise. Page one again. Go all the way through, printing out each page just as before.

Then send it off to someone else to read--agent, editor, critique partner--and start your next book.

Remember, if you do this right, if you're good enough (and so far I think you are) and you can prove it, and your timing is really good, you will be published. This book will simply be one of many.

Then the book reviewers will get to you--but THAT'S another thread. :)
posted by writergurl at 3:45 PM on January 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


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