Being Succinct

Kathlyn, one of our non-blogging RWI sisters, sent us a funny the other day. I apologize for keeping the email so I could post it verbatin, but you’re getting the gist:  A college professor instructs his class to write a piece including the following elements: religion, romance, surprise, and mystery. And the trick was to do it in as few words as possible.

The winner certainly succeeded:

“Oh, God, I’m pregnant. Who could the father be?”

Most readers don’t want their books told in the shortest manner possible. It’s all those lovely words that attract us to books away, that allow authors to set scenes and create characters whom we love. But sometimes we word-loving authors get too wordy. I once heard a writer friend admit to calling her critique partner in a panic. “I’m trying to get my hero out of this very cluttered room,” she wailed. “There’s so much furniture; he has to walk around this and zig around that, and he’s never going to make it to the door.”

Her friend thought about it a moment, then said, “He stood up and left the room.”

Stuck author was unstuck. She’d been so close that all she’d seen was an unwieldy problem without any solution, but her friend solved it for her in seven words.

Sometimes we need long, lovely, lush passages.

Sometimes we needed short and to the point.

The trick is learning to  balance them.


14 thoughts on “Being Succinct

  1. Marilyn–
    I’d seen that email ditty earlier and loved it.
    At first, I thought you were describing my office. 😉

    Writing short fiction is being succinct.

    • Um, I’m not sure you could have gotten into your office in the first place to then face the problem of getting out. 🙂

      Being succinct is why I don’t write short fiction. “Succinct” and I have no business being in a sentence together.

  2. I am a wordy-gurdy.

    I write and write and add in metaphors and similes, then find some adjectives and adverbs to really make it sing. But my favorite part is when I go back and drizzle on the cliches. 🙂

    Too bad they don’t have a cliche’ checker that works like spell check. Could someone get to work on that?

    I’m working on it, slowly but surely. I just realized I had the problem. Oh, well. Live and learn and all that. Cliche’-aholic, that’s me.

    • Words are there for us to use (even adverbs and adjectives!). It’s just learning when and where to use them that’s tough.

      I once wrote a lovely description of a house that went on for two long paragraphs. I thought it was great. It painted so precise a picture of the place that any reader could have recognized it if they saw it for real.

      My editor read it and wrote a note in the margin: “Can you cut this down to two sentences, three max?”

      I’m still learning. Sometimes I write flowery for me, then go back and trim it for everyone else. It’s like I have to get the words out to make room for the next passage of words.

  3. It’s all the difference between slogging through a book and feeling rushed to the end. We have to find that happy medium.

  4. Marilyn,

    Since I have spent the past 15 years of my life as a technical writer, software manuals have been my main product. In any type of business writing, it’s all about being succinct and to the point. You want to say the most information in the least amount of words.

    I’ve always used my fiction writing to do the exact opposite. But sometimes, shortest is sweetest. spw

    • I bet you were a great technical writer, Sandee. I’ve had a few manuals that I know you could improve upon. “Now you are taking the wranch and applicating it to the screw . . .”

      I sometimes long for the days when the writing was more lush, with detailed descriptions and rich prose, but today everything’s usually lean and spare. Which can also be lovely.

      You’d think after 70-whatever books, I’d’ve learned to be a little more spare naturally, but it don’t come easy.

      • Marilyn,

        You can REALLY tell the folks who make a product (and all the product documentation) overseas, can’t you? It’s a global economy, baby! I’m actually really good at paring the words down to the minimum… it’s actually doing the flowery descriptions that I lack the ability to do. I need critique partners to remind me, “you need to set the stage!” “You need to tell us what he’s thinking!” spw

    • Isn’t that fun, Lynn??

      I used to routinely write 15-25 page synopses — my longest was somewhere north of 50 pages. Then I started working with Beth De Guzman at Bantam. She didn’t like detailed synopses, she told me; she just wanted enough to have an idea of what the book was about. Maybe five-seven pages? I asked her.

      Maybe one page, she said. A half-page would be even better.

      The synopsis for SOME ENCHANTED SEASON, my first book with her, was one paragraph — not even as long as the back-cover blurb that wound up on the book. Wow!

  5. Amen on the cutting-word-counts!! When I started writing for Silhouette, we could do straight romance or romantic suspense, and our word count was 80-85,000 words.

    Now we HAVE to do romantic suspense, and the target range is 60,000. (I usually hit around 62-63K).

    It’s almost killed me. 🙂

  6. I received a note at the office telling of how to ‘mentally’ prepare for a meeting. The note was over 280 words long. The jest of the note – 33 words. Talk about wordy!

    But in reality, I’m the same way. Love cliche’s. Don’t even realize it when I’m writing them. And I pretty much go the long way around to get to my elbow. (Which is an old saying meaning I do it the hard way.) To my credit, though, I’m getting better at writing tighter. {THANKS Y’ALL!!}

    • As I always say, cliches are cliches for a reason. Sometimes they ARE the shortest, best way to get a point across. As long as you remember, all things in moderation. 😉

      Tightening our prose is tough. After all, how many writers have you met who WEREN’T chatty?

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