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This week's writing exercise is about economy of language. It's something we've touched on previously in the blog (here and sort of here) because we spend much of the day pruning extraneous words from manuscripts. It's our public service to the world to try and stop you from using 20 words when 8 would be so much better. But we also realize this is no easy task.
Regardless of genre or style, you will find yourself adrift in a sea of language. Creative writers are burdened by the need to craft entire worlds and often fall victim to the siren call of purple prose. Scholarly writers have had their heads filled with -isms, -izations, and -ologies and are perhaps the guiltiest of using far too many words to convey their complex ideas. On the other end of the spectrum, nonfiction writers often fall into list making, bare bones reporting of facts. As in most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Knowing how to convey important facts and details with nuance, clarity, and economy is central to all story telling.
Katherine Boo, whose work has won Pulitzers and National book awards, offers some excellent advice about finding this balance in investigative writing. She begins with a description pulled from St. Petersburg Times reporter Anne Hull's coverage of Mexican workers in North Carolina:
"'She was 35, barely five feet tall in her sandals. Her pans of tamales had gradually found their way to her hips. For a mother of eight she was unusually mild mannered. A hen would fall asleep in her hand as she drew the hatchet back to chop its neck.'
In four sentences, just fifty words, Anne included an astonishing number of facts and images: the woman's height, age, body shape, number of children, footwear, her family's diet, their food source, and even a fleeting glimpse of life in her rural hometown...In those fifty words Anne created more of a feel for this woman than many writers do in an entire story. This economy works so well because Anne knows exactly what the reader needs to know about the character....The narrative works becuase Anne has done the hard analysis implicit in those fifty words."*
While Boo is discussing investigative reporting, I find this wisdom to apply to all good writing. You have to do your research, whether that means hours in a musty library or fully developing your character. And then you have to make every word count.
So after far too many words, I offer an actual writing exercise inspired by Boo and Hull:
Introduce one of your characters, evoke her temperamant, her physical presence. Tell us what we need to know about her using only fifty words.
*Boo's essay apppears in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (Plume, 2007)