One of the key lessons for writers – repeated endlessly by those who teach it – is keep it tight.
Writing isn’t about word count – it’s about content. The right content. Any sentence that doesn’t move the content along is padding. Keep the focus. Drop those adjectives. If it’s fiction, does it move the plot and character arc along? If it’s non-fiction, how does that relate to the argument?
It’s a sound lesson, and it’s one that usually translates into brevity.
But brevity is not the only way to tackle that particular challenge. The other is writing by floods of words; a profligacy of words; a cascade of words; words flowing like a river, pooling into great lakes of words, all adding depth to meaning. All without forgetting that essential lesson – that every point, every argument, has to move things forward.
New Zealand’s master was the late Sir Paul Holmes, a journalist whose style involved repeating a phrase, re-nuanced, from different angles. Very chatty, very accessible. He used to review my books on air; I was able to repay the compliment, later, when I had chance to review his book on the 1979 Erebus disaster. It was a wonderful book, not least because of Holmes’ fabulous written styling.
I parodied Holmes’ verbal style, explicitly, in one section of my science-fiction history Fantastic Pasts (Penguin 2008). Now out of print.
We find much the same style in the books of an English writing community – Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry and Ben Elton.
I twigged to it when I discovered a passage in one of Elton’s novels in which he took the best part of a page to describe a sink of dirty dishes. A waterfall of words, every one of them essential – because what he was doing wasn’t describing the dishes; he was describing reactions to them.
It was a way of making the reader feel what Elton felt. And there’s similar in Adams’ work (a tragedy, of course, that he passed away). Fry spelt it out in one of his autobiographies – a profligacy of words, a love of words. And yet these people didn’t waste their words; they styled them, lovingly, into shapes and patterns that drew readers in and made them hungry for more.
Something, perhaps, that we could all aim for.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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