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

By Ross Lampert

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.

Taken to extremes, neither tendency is good.

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.)

Confusion meter

Image courtesy Stuart Miles;

At the other end of the spectrum, writers who take tight, Ernest Hemingway-like writing to the Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name extreme aren’t likely to see print, either.

Why? Because the verbose and cryptic writing styles both hide meaning. Wordy writing buries it under a pile of needless verbiage, while too-spare writing scatters meaning’s ashes to the four winds.

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

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

As a critiquer, you will run into both styles. Count on it: you will. The question is, what will you do then?

Different genres of fiction and different non-fiction markets have different preferred styles. “Literary” and mainstream fiction tends to be wordier than some other forms because literary and mainstream 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, among others, 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, you need to know its genre or target market.

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, not because the writing is drawing your curiosity but because it 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 place where the problems happen and identify what you need to know, how the plot can be developed more, or the pace slowed.

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

  • Using wordy 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, the 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, too, 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).

How you help the writer address the problem is going to depend on what the problem is, but each solution will involve trimming out the excess to find the lightning, rather than the lightning bug, as it were. While you’re at it, be sure to explain to the author what the problem was. Just getting out the red pen and hacking away may not teach him how to do better next time.

Speaking of getting wordy, it’s about time to cut this piece off. What do you look for to identify when writing is too wordy or too cryptic? What do you do to help such writing get better?

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