Critique Technique, Part 30 — Too Many Words, or Too Few

In the movie My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl turned high-society woman of charm and mystery, sings to her would-be boyfriend, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words….”

For some writers, that’s not a problem. In fact, they’re too in love with words, and think the more of them there are on the page or screen, the better. Then there are the others who, Eliza-like, want no more of them. Or at least darn few of them.

The days of padding a piece with any and every extraneous available word, á la Henry James, are over. (Well, for new or getting-established writers, they’re over. For über-successful authors like Stephen King, Tom Clancy, or George R. R. Martin, padding may not be intentional, but it’s not edited out, either.)

At the other end of the spectrum, writers who take tight, Ernest Hemingway-like writing to the Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name extreme may not see print, either, at least not with a traditional publisher.

Style Versus Substance

Why? Because both writing styles hide meaning. Wordy writing buries it under a pile of needless verbiage, while too-spare writing fails to provide enough information for the meaning to come through.

Both styles can also reveal a lack of confidence on the writer’s part.

  • Wordy writing may reveal the author’s fear that the reader won’t understand what he’s written.
  • In cryptic writing, the author:
    • Doesn’t know how to convey onto the page what she’s seeing in her mind’s eye, or
    • Assumes the reader knows everything she knows, or
    • Is perhaps afraid to say too much.

Different genres of fiction and different non-fiction markets have different preferred styles. “Literary” and mainstream fiction tend to be wordier than some other forms because they value and expect more depth of description, greater use of simile and metaphor for comparison, more exploration of psychological and emotional states, and so on. Thrillers, westerns, and some science fiction, on the other hand, get right to the point and the action.

The same is true in non-fiction: a magazine like Atlantic Monthly expects a different—wordier—style than, say, Outside.

So, before making a judgment on whether a piece is too wordy or too cryptic, it helps to know its genre or target market.

What to Look For

With that in mind, you can start testing for faults. Too spare writing is easier to deal with, if not necessarily easier to detect. If a piece is too spare, you’ll find yourself wanting to know more. It may be drawing your curiosity but it also has holes. They might be details about a character, setting, or situation that you feel you need to know right now but don’t, or the story might fly by, flashing from event to event without explanation or development. In cases like these, flag the places where the problems happen and identify what you need to know, how the plot, characterization, or setting can be developed more, or the pace slowed.

Overly wordy writing can take many forms. Here are some examples.

  • Using phrases like “in order to” or “in expectation of” rather than the shorter and cleaner “to” or “expecting”;
  • Using the passive voice;
  •  Piling on excess descriptive phrases, adjectives, or adverbs;
  • Data-dumping: pouring in more information than the reader needs at that moment in the piece; or
  • Trying to be “literary” by writing long, winding, complicated sentences.

Like the wordy writer, this list could go on and on.

The best ways to tell when writing is too wordy are:

  • You feel like you’re wading through the piece, rather than flowing through it;
  • You become conscious of the fact that you’re reading rather than being engaged in the story;
  • You find yourself losing interest, your mind wandering off to ponder what you’re going to have for dinner, whether your daughter’s newest boyfriend can be trusted farther than you can throw him, etc.

Of course, there can be other reasons for being distracted, but in cases like these, when you drag your concentration back to the work, you’ll know you need to get out your verbosity meter and take a reading (pun intended).

Questions for You

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you review a writer’s work.

  • Do I find myself struggling to understand what the author is trying to say, or picture what he’s trying to describe?
    • Is that because he’s buried the meaning or description in too many words? Is he trying to be “literary” in a piece that is not meant for that market? If so, show him how he can clean out the excess.
    • Is it because there’s too little information or description? If so, what needs to be added, and where?
  • Is she using empty words that don’t add anything meaningful to the piece?
  • Is he using the passive voice? Show him how the active voice saves words and is more engaging.
  • Is she providing explanations you think readers don’t need?
    • Did she provide that information before? If so, all you may need to do is remind her of that and encourage her to believe that her readers really will remember it from last time.
    • Is there so much information that it bogs the story down? If so, show her how she can trim out the material that is not contributing. Maybe it can be used elsewhere. Or maybe it is not needed at all.
  • Conversely, does it seem that he’s left important information out because he assumed the reader knows things they don’t? Show him why that information needs to be added, and where a good place to do it would be.

Speaking of getting wordy, it’s time to cut this piece off. What do you look for to identify when writing is too wordy or too cryptic? And what do you do to help such writing get better? Feel free to put your brief—but not too brief—suggestions in the comments box below.

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