Write Tight isn’t always Right

I’ve read two very different books lately that have made me think about spare writing.

As a reporter I was was taught specific nouns, strong active verbs, few adjectives, no adverbs. Subject, verb order. The Dallas Morning News had a rule that you couldn’t start a sentence with a prepositional phrase. Never in the lead, rarely anywhere else.

Leads were supposed to be no longer than 23 words — the Portland Oregonian’s writing coach used to routinely count leads in the paper and urge writers to simplify. One month, the leads averaged 42 words, resulting in a scathing memo.

Write tight.

Fiction was the land of descriptive writing. There you could use your adjectives and adverbs. There you could use a — gasp — semicolon. Correctly, one hopes. Sentences could be long; paragraphs could have more than two sentences.

I tend to write fiction like a reporter. I feel like I am getting away with something when I have descriptions that go on for a whole paragraph, and without attribution. So far readers say they like the style.

But you can go overboard.

Cynthia Eden writes some excellent paranormal romances. I’m particularly fond of Cry Wolf. It was the first I read of hers, and I liked it enough that I sought out and read most of the rest. I hope she someday expands on the somewhat haphazard world she’s created and moves into a more urban fantasy series that dovetails with her existing books. She’s also written some romances, and those I’m less fond of simply because I find “contemporary romances” predictable. After all, I snuck out my Mom’s Harlequins over 40 years ago. So it says something that I’d read one of her contemporaries at all.

I didn’t like it. Yes, it was somewhat predictable, but I expected that. But the style seemed overwrought. And I realized that the writing especially at the end of the chapters was so spare, it had the reverse effect that reporters intend.

Short paragraphs. One sentence, maybe two.

Even shorter sentences.

Just a word or two.

Jon Land is an old pro. His series featuring Caitlin Strong starts with Strong Enough to Die, a completely different genre than Eden’s. His writing varies the pace with descriptive passages, dialog and action. It is his dialog that echoes the spare but overwrought pace that I found annoying in Eden’s book:

“I’m skeptical that someone of your background can understand victims of violence, Miss Strong.”

“Because I practiced it.”

“Quite well, apparently.”

“Torture is a different kind of violence, more like rape. The strong dominating the weak.”

“Do you know a lot about rape, Miss Strong?”

“I know a lot about the strong and the weak, Miss Navarro.”

(I don’t like my kindle app — it won’t let me copy a passage. Have to flip between the book and my note pad. So it’s not completely accurate.)

Communication scholarship estimates that 70 percent of oral communication is non-verbal. How we say things is as important as what we say. This passage reads as if it were two gunslingers in a spaghetti Western. Terse. Deadpan. Instead it is between two women in a job interview. We aren’t given attribution tags, emotion, body language. Nor do we have any of the ums, pauses, sentence fragments that characterize human conversation — especially female conversation.

Just words.

So even “write tight” can be too much of a good thing. Never thought I’d say this, but sometimes you need to edit and put words in.

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