Being concise with writing and editing

Brian G Turner

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So I just wrote:

"I want to be alerted the moment it changes from its current course."
And immediately recognised it was clunky.

Firstly, whatever course it's on is it current course. So I can cut "from its current".

Also, "I want to be alerted" - isn't there a simpler way to say this? How about just "Alert me"?

That might do it. But looking yet again - "the moment" could probably be simplified to "if".

So:

"I want to be alerted the moment it changes from its current course."
becomes:

"Alert me if it changes course."

A sentence of 12 words reduced to 6.

This IMO is what Stephen King was pushing for in On Writing - the need for brevity, and to be as succinct as possible.

Additionally, this is why discussions on word counts are moot - because almost all of the people asking that question probably haven't taken a butcher's cleave to to their prose yet.

Even in the above example I've just simplified a sentence, instead of removing it. But that could be the difference between a novel being a 200,000 word doorstopper - or a punchy 100,000 word novel. And I might remove it anyway.

Just thought I'd mention this, because I find it interesting to note how I'm trying to be concise as I write.
 

thaddeus6th

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Good threadstarter. I'd add that it varies a lot according to writing style and genre too. If you're going for ye olde Shakespeare, there's a vast yawning chasm between that and Newspeak (the concise, soulless language of 1984).

I tend to vary between middling rambling (in writing, online and e-mail especially I ramble ad nauseum) and pretty concise for comedy. Longevity can work in mirth, though, Sir Humphrey Appleby's prolonged prognostications being a good example (and some words are inherently amusing and relatively long, nincompoop and tallywhacker, for example).

Anyway, in general I agree with you, although it is possible to hack stuff back too much. A bit like showing not telling. A good guideline, but not right 100% of the time.
 

HareBrain

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it is possible to hack stuff back too much.
Yes, I cut almost 40,000 words from TGP in one concerted effort, but then added back almost 10,000 over the following edits because many sentences were too condensed and read awkwardly, or were no longer in character voice.

This IMO is what Stephen King was pushing for in On Writing - the need for brevity, and to be as succinct as possible.
Hmm, he's not exactly the first writer I think of when I consider brevity.
 

Nick B

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I think King said he generally ends up cutting around 10% of his wordcount in total (so may add as well as cut), and that seems to fit with my experience so far. Even Primordial lost around a thousand words by the time it was finished, and thats around 10k total. I know Liberator ended up around 96 from its original 110ish mark.

I think different works can be more forgiving of a little extra prose though. I guess, like most things, the answes to the age old question of word count is - it depends.
 

Phyrebrat

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I don't like the push for brutal editing*

...Just because, I think the spartan style is popular at the moment, and if I can borrow a word from upthread and use it to my own argument; soulless. Soulless can work, BTW. Michael Crichton's stories are awesome SF or Social-SF, but are pretty devoid of anything more than superficial characterisatons.

But for me, I like the beauty, meter and sound of words as well as the technicality.

I think the real problem is when you're not self-aware; of limitations, and skills. We've all come across (and written!) some waffly purple bloat, or simply a poorly constructed sentence, but to my mind the discernment of whether it is narrative or dialogue has to be taken into account.

For example, in Brian's example, the character might be pompous and verbose. I certainly have friends about whom I think 'oh, get to the point...' sometimes. I also have friends who answer almost monosyllabically.

It's an interesting, fluctuating line, as you say. I never realised how relevant it can be when you write in a different way that you're not used to. In my WIP, I find some of the medieval dialogue hard to keep tight, and certainly shy away from certain contractions.

pH

*Certainly not while writing, anyway; editing stage is for that.
 

Gonk the Insane

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but to my mind the discernment of whether it is narrative or dialogue has to be taken into account.
Argh, you beat me to it - that's the point I was going to raise:). I liked Brian's example of how to edit a sentence and make it more concise, but I think dialogue can be trickier in this area. I read the two versions differently, and either could be appropriate depending on the personality of the speaker and/or the setting. For example, in a high-tension situation, the second, punchier version might be used to save time in the heat of the moment. If there isn't urgency, then the choice of which version to use could tell us something about the character speaking - whether they're (perhaps unnecessarily) verbose, or someone who doesn't mince their words, takes control, gets to the point (unlike me here;)) etc.

This IMO is what Stephen King was pushing for in On Writing - the need for brevity, and to be as succinct as possible.
Yes, it been's some time since I read it, but I seem to remember he was pretty mercenary when it came to pruning a manuscript, and your example feels like the kind of thing he'd suggest.
 

Phyrebrat

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Aw, sorry Gonk ;)

Yes, I agree. I didn't think of circumstance, just character. When I read Brian's post was thinking of Grand Moff Tarkin and Director Krennic:

GMT: "I want to be alerted the moment it changes from its current course." (probably aloof and mellifluous, with the r's in 'current' rolled.)
DK: "Alert me if it changes course." (probably spat out angrily)

:D

pH
 

Toby Frost

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Personally, I'd have gone for "tell me"!

I think you're right, Brian, but the impression I get is that a fair number of fantasy readers expect awkward dialogue, on the grounds that it sounds more "realistic". Of course, it varies from character to character, but I get the feeling that in some quarters, the more clunky the better. I would much prefer dialogue that flows properly and is able to use the language to its full extent. If nobody ever says "can't" instead of "cannot", you've immediately lost a way of differentiating character voice. I would choose elegance over an unreliable version of authenticity.
 

Martin Gill

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I agree it can be, but if done well it can ooze style. I've just finished Ready Player One and that's pretty punchy in places, yet its jam packed with style. I've rolled straight on to Snowcrash and that's also snappy. Quick. Stylistically poised. Adam Baker (Outpost, Juggernaut) does this well - though I think he went too far in his last novel. Lots of two word sentences.

I write and edit non fiction professionally - research reports and the like. Our company style guide promotes active voice, which keeps sentences shorter. We use bullet-pointed sections and we strive to ensure no bullet exceeds seven lines. Six, even five is preferable. It forces brevity. A lot of readers consume our content on mobile devices. The device form factor has influenced our writing style. (I've stripped about 30% of the wordcount out of this para by editing it!)

I do find for fiction, for my tastes, it fits a more modern setting rather than a historical or fantasy one, but even in what I've been writing over the last year (viking themed fantasy) I am trying to keep things short, especially for the combat sections where I want both pace and a feel of a disjointed, chaotic experience.
 

Phyrebrat

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If it were done, when tis done, 'twere well it were done quickly... bloody awful English... I agree the editing should pick up 'clunk'.
but.... 'Oh look; a dagger.' is a bit boring.

'Birnam Wood's awfully near!'

and finally; 'When're the three of us gonna hang out next?'

Sorry, couldn't resist. :D

pH
 

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