Saturday, July 31, 2010

Words on Display

At A Pen for Your Thoughts we usually spend our days sharing other authors with you, and in turn giving you an opportunity to share a little something back with us. Through both, we learn either a little or a lot about each other.

Since many of us are not only readers, but writers, as well, I'm blessed Delia Latham, award winning author has graciously consented to sharing her tips of the writing trade on a regular basis with us. In this section, you and I will learn to remember those things we can easily forget when we are penning our beloved manuscripts.

Looking for some spit and polish? Here is lesson number one.

Words on Display
by Delia Latham

And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.
~1 Corinthians 9:25

“Temperate,” according to Merriam-Webster:  1 : marked by moderation: as keeping or held within limits; not extreme or excessive.
Sometimes less is more.
Unlike many familiar phrases, this one is true almost every time. (I have to admit, I don’t think that way when I’m trying to stretch too few dollars to make ends meet. In that case, more would definitely be more.)

But we’re not talking about money, or beauty, or weight loss. We’re talking about writing, and with that topic in mind, less is more.

Write tight. Be succinct. Make it short and snappy.
I could think of a dozen more ways to say the same thing, but it would defeat my purpose.

Want to know why editors slap our wrists for using too many adjectives and adverbs? Because they clutter, without serving any real purpose. They are crutches, and depending on them keeps us from making the effort to write better, tighter, cleaner prose.

I once knew a woman who owned a houseful of expensive things. Beautiful china and crystal. Figurines, paintings, the best furniture—costly collectibles everywhere one looked. Curio cabinets and china closets lined the walls of her home, each of them literally packed with beautiful items.

The result?
Visitors saw nothing but clutter. The sheer volume of stuff overwhelmed them—and destroyed the intended effect.

A savvy displayer would have cleared off an entire shelf for one exquisite piece, knowing that a masterpiece shows best when it stands alone.

The same principle can be applied to writing. While adjectives and adverbs are useful when used sparingly, most of the time they are unnecessary excess. They turn our literary works of art into a meaningless jumble of words.
  • Example 1:
The beautiful, raven-haired princess strolled happily along the lush, green banks of a dancing, sun-dappled brook, enjoying the peaceful, pastoral view.

Beautiful imagery? Hardly! It’s pure excess. Why force a reader to weed through an over-abundance of description to find the core message?
  • Example 2:
Princess Rowena strolled beside the brook. Sunlight danced on the water, turning its surface into a thousand jewel-like prisms. A lush blanket of grass hugged her bare feet. For the first time since her escape from the palace, she smiled, soothed by the sound of the water as it bounced off boulders and splashed against smaller rocks. Peace at last.

Example 1 uses nine descriptors in a single sentence. Example 2 uses less descriptors in five sentences. It doesn’t eliminate descriptive words, but it does make them count. Breaking up that original bulky sentence gives the reader’s eyes a rest, and her mind an opportunity to catch up. Throwing aside the crutch of descriptive words also forces more action. Example 2 conveys the same meaning, but shows what’s happening instead of telling.
  • Example 3:
“I don’t like it,” Mikie said, wrinkling her freckled, turned-up nose as she pushed the plate of sticky pasta aside and fixed her big blue eyes across the small table, where flickering candlelight turned Carter’s normally handsome face into a shadowy monster’s mask.

  1. Head hopping. Mikie can’t see her freckles, her nose, or her eyes, so their description should be left for another time and place—unless we’re in Carter’s POV. If so, then we have the same problem: Carter can’t see his own face… (We’ll discuss POV another day.)
     2. Run-on sentence. (Please. Give your reader a break!)
     3. And, of course, our pet peeve of the day: overuse of descriptors.
  • Example 4 (Fix): 
“I can’t eat this.” Mikie wrinkled her nose in disgust. “It’s sticky.”

Carter’s eyebrows rose in surprise—or was it irritation? That pasta would cost more than he earned in two hours. Mikie ignored the niggling guilt. Lost in the perfection of his face, she almost forgot to breathe. Somewhere in the room, a door opened and shut. On the table between them, candlelight flickered and waned, then settled into a steady flame. As she watched, mesmerized, the play of light and shadow twisted her husband’s features into a demonic visage.

The above examples are simplistic to an extreme. Still, I hope they demonstrate the benefits of clearing the clutter.

As Christians, we “strive for the mastery.” (Read that, “shoot for perfection.” We may never attain it, but it should be our goal.) Attaining master level in any area requires moderation and temperance in all things.

Merriam-Webster describes “temperance” as: “…keeping or held within limits; not extreme or excessive.”

With the clutter pared away, we might reveal a masterpiece.

© July 2010
Delia Latham
Yesterday's Promise
Adam's Wings (coming 12/2010)
Thank you so much to Delia for those great tips.
How about you, everyone?


  1. Great post! I loved your examples:)

  2. This is so helpful. It really helps when you are in a critique group. thanks so mcuh.

    Janice Ian

  3. Thank you for stopping by, and for commenting, Terri and Janice! I truly hope I said something helpful. :)

  4. I love the examples, but what man would ever say, "I can't eat this, it's sticky"? None, I say. LOL

    Great post!

    After all, POV is a sticky subject.

  5. MYou're absolutely right about that! Mikie is a girl, Donna. lol

  6. Delia,
    Useful information. As a reader I know I don't like to much description that takes away from the forward movement of a story. Now, when I'm trying to pad word count I can fall guilty!

  7. I think we all can, Victoria - it's probably the easiest writing mistake to make.

  8. Love your examples, Delia. It makes those rules very clear.

  9. Excellent post, Delia. Great information to keep in mind as we write! Great blog, Shirley!

  10. Right on, Delia! Thanks for sharing.

  11. Hey, Lisa - thanks for stopping by!