Verbosity (noun): “The fact or quality of using more words than needed; wordiness.”
I know. For years you’ve been hearing about wars against drugs, obesity, terrorism, racism andmale pattern baldness. The last thing you want is another one. But trust me, when considering the future of the written word, verbosity is just as much of a problem as any of those Real World issues, especially among young, inexperienced writers.
We all know those people who talk incessantly, dancing around whatever it is they want to say but lacking the confidence or courage to do so directly. Instead, they hope you connect the dots and do the dirty work for them.
It’s annoying, right?
Likewise, there are the people who hit the point right on the head with deadly accuracy. But then they just keep on hitting, saying the same thing over and over again, maybe using different words in an effort to give the impression that they’ve moved when in reality they are rooted to the spot.
Both these kinds of people waste our time, agreed?
In the literary world, verbosity has a similar effect. Consider this sentence:
“The skies opened, unleashing a slick torrent of rain which lashed against the dirty, lightly condensed window glass sounding like untold numbers of heathens banging their fists against the cold, unrelenting gates of heaven.”
Now consider this alternative:
“It was raining heavily.”
“The rain lashed down.”
Granted, neither option is as evocative or spectacular as the first passage. But in effect they say the same thing, and move the story along to the same point in a fraction of the time. By comparison, the first sentence is dense and unfocused. You have to wade through a lot of padding to get the point.
You are probably wondering why verbosity bothers me so much.
Let me explain.
A lot of people send me samples of their work to read or critique, something I am usually more than happy to do. If you do this enough, certain patterns or traits begin to emerge. I can spot a novice writer because most of them take forty or fifty words to say something a more experienced writer would say in six or eight. It was raining. Got it. What more do you need to know? Anything else is just superfluous. Set the tone by all means, but know when you are entering ‘overkill’ territory. In the early stages of your writing career it is simply a matter of cutting out the bullshit. It might sound pretty, but does it actually serve the story?
Of course, there are times when a touch of verbosity is justified. Or even required. Especially at points in the story you want the reader to remember for maximum impact. Maybe a touching love scene, or the death of a leading character. By all means, dawdle a bit. But trust me, nobody wants to wade through three or four paragraphs of flowery prose describing in technicolour detail how much it’s raining outside and how wet the water is. What’s the point? You might think it’s the best thing ever written in the history of mankind, but the reality is, it probably isn’t. Unless you keep things moving apace, the reader will get very bored very quickly. With so much choice out there, once you lose a reader, it’s very difficult to win them back.
Any good editor will tell you that you shouldn’t use more words than absolutely necessary. Reading words takes time, and time is precious. Don’t waste it. There was a time when you could have gotten away with it, but this isn’t the 19th Century anymore. Treat words as precious commodities, not something you have a surplus of. Give your readers some respect, and acknowledge they are busy people. Get to the point with the minimum of fuss, and pretty soon you’ll begin to see marked improvements in your writing.
This post first appeared on the now-defunct Deviant Dolls website.
See here for my thoughts on the dreaded writer’s block.