Monday, 10 October 2011

The small things, interrupted

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I don’t generally give writing advice unless I am specifically asked. I keep it for my workshops, one week each summer. It always feels a bit wanky to be going round telling people what they should be doing with a semi-colon. I do occasionally go mad over the dangling modifier (I found one the other day in a book by Simon Schama. Simon Schama???), but mostly I keep my powder dry.

But since I do bang on about attempting to make this blog both beautiful and useful, and since I have been deep in the tunnel of deadlines lately, and not much use to man or beast, I thought that perhaps I might, tentatively, pass on some of the things I have been reminded of in this editing process.

Number one would be: do not write sentences as long as that last one. If that were in a book, and I had time for the second, third, and fourth drafts, I would go back and break it up.

There are quite a lot of things I know about writing, not because I am brilliant or omniscient, but because when started out, I read all the writing books. I did not have a clue what I was doing. I had not been brought up by poets. I could tell you exactly how to feel for heat in a thoroughbred’s tendon, or how to watch for the signs of Monday morning disease, or how to avoid laminitis. I could not tell you a fine phrase from a hole in the ground.

So, in a fever of investigation, I bought all the books. I read John Gardner and Dorothea Brande and Brenda Ueland and Anne Lamott. I still have them, those books, their spines whitened and cracked from use. Some of them are over twenty years old. They sit on a special shelf, to the right of my desk. Becoming a Writer; On Writing Well; How to Write; Telling Lies for Fun and Profit; Writing Down the Bones; The Art of Fiction; Women Writers At Work; The Modern British Novel. They are how I know what I know.

There is also the simple fact of observation. How did Mrs Woolf create that effect? What exactly was it in the Gatsby party scene that raised it to the level of genius? How did Hemingway conjure a world using only the plainest words and the leanest sentences?

Today is a pure editing day. And it reminds me how important the small things are. You can transform a sentence by removing one word. I just changed ‘moment in time’ to ‘time’. I have no idea what possessed me to write moment in time in the first place; it is the kind of pompous faux-phrase I despise. But just that minute change brought the sentence to life. Yesterday, I changed ‘It has the effect of making’ to ‘It makes’. It sounds like nothing. It is everything.

If in doubt, take it out, runs the line in my head, like a playground chant. Take your razor, and carve away the verbiage. I always think of that moment in Amadeus when the asinine Emperor turns round to Wolfie and says: Too many notes, Herr Mozart, too many notes.

Yet, you can allow yourself to play. I love a good adjective, an expressive adverb. In that last paragraph, I did not need the word ‘asinine’. But I liked the way it sounded, how it pushed up against ‘Emperor’ to create a sonorous effect. One famous writer once said that the way to hell is paved with adverbs. It was someone like Elmore Leonard. Too many adverbs generally mean that your verbs are not butch enough. If you stride instead of walk, gaze instead of look, glide instead of move, you should have no call for any qualifier. But sometimes you do want to do something sinuously, or silently, or sibilantly. (Not that last one, actually, it’s a silly word; I was straining too hard for alliteration. Which you may also use in low doses.)

Another of the tiny things is rhythm. Sentences have a beat, like music. I like to listen to mine; one syllable too many can throw the whole thing off. So, this morning, I changed ‘a world that has vanished’ to ‘a vanished world’. It was partly redundancy; it was partly because I wanted to change the syncopation. This sounds slightly precious and fey. How can it matter? How could anyone even notice? And yet, they do.

The reader may not think, consciously, goodness me, that paragraph got rhythm. But she will sense it, subliminally. A light, dancing rhythm will draw the reader onward, turn a book from a chore to a pleasure.
I come back always to shortness. There are exceptions, but the general rule holds: a short word is better than a long one. (My enduring examples go: house is better than residence; car is better than vehicle; cheap is better than inexpensive.) A short sentence is generally better than a long one, although sometimes one may let a sentence run on, for the sake of variety. Too many short sentences, huddled together, can get a little rat-tat-tat.

I start to lean towards the short paragraph, too. I used to think this a bit tabloid, but now I think it is simply more inviting to the eye. The physical fact of white space on the page may let the words breathe. Interestingly, I have learnt this from blogging. Since I started writing a blog, I also began reading them. My Google Reader is crammed with blogs on every subject, from politics to horses to houses to food. The one thing that can be guaranteed to put me off is opening a post and finding a long, unbroken screed of prose. It might be written with the wit of Wilde, but my eye is instantly wary.

As with all rules, the shortness doctrine is not immutable. Sometimes you want something beautifully, stupidly, pointlessly long. You want antediluvian, or quintessential, or onomatopoeic. You want antidisestablishmentarianism. (Not that often, I do admit.) You want grandiloquence, and tumescence, and gallimaufry.

Stopping now. Suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of sickness. I have been fighting a rearguard action against the village sick bug for three days. I have a horrible feeling it is coming to get me now. Everything aches. I have only six days to go. I cannot lose one single hour. Bugger, bugger, bugger.

So sorry, on account of sudden weakness, there are no photographs. Today, you just get one lovely face, before I flee to a darkened room. Forgive me.

Happy, scruffy, wet dog:

10 Oct 3

And hill, because there must be hill.

10 Oct 5.ORF


  1. Oh no, what terrible timing - not that there is ever a good time to be sick. Do hope you feel better very soon.
    The writing tips were a great reminder from that brilliant week spent with you in July. Thanks.

  2. I think editing your own work must be the hardest part of the process. Or perhaps it is harder still to then have the editor cut even further?
    Either way, thank you for your advice at this busy time.
    Take care and I do hope the Village Bug misses x

  3. Here's hoping you feel better soon! And yes, people do notice the rhythm of words - at least I do. I also make comments during movies like "the light in this scene is fantastic". So maybe I'm hyper peripherally aware or something. But still - I appreciate a well syncopated sentence!


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