The poets are considered great, right? Shakespeare’s awesome, right? Which means I should put as much flowery text in my book as possible, right? I should stick as many cool adjectives and adverbs as I can on each verb and noun?
That’s a trap that many young writers fall into, especially those writing nonfiction. They try to pad their school papers with tons of adjectives and adverbs, saying “It’s completely important and absolutely necessary that we consider the amazing ancient texts of days gone past without number.” when you could say “Ancient texts are important.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not railing at Shakespeare, Milton, the King James Bible, or any of that. Those are good, beautifully written works. I don’t doubt that. However, you are no poet (unless you want to be, then my words don’t apply to you), and I don’t expect you to act like one. You’re a novelist, a writer of novels. Too many adjectives and adverbs are taboo.
William Zinsser calls this “clutter”. No better name was invented for it. It is exactly that: unnecessary, useless, dead weight, trash. Clinging particles. It does not make you sound smart. it’s a cheap way of filling up the word count. Don’t write more bubbles; write more atlas stones. Even if there isn’t much writing there, you want it to be refined, lean, and tough.
There are two ways of preventing this. The first way is to learn to write less clutter. Learn to simplify your thoughts, and then your thoughts on paper will be simplified. Remember, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Sound advice. Anything that doesn’t get the point across needs to be thrown out. Anything that repeats a previous topic needs to be thrown out. Instead of teaching yourself to put in extra words, force yourself to write the shortest and simplest form of what you want to say.
Note: I am not telling you to say less. If you want to describe the beautiful girl or the terrifying dragon or the grumpy matron, go right ahead. Just do so in as few words as can be managed. Use simple and witty terms, and tell the reader exactly what you want to say, but in fewer words.
The second way is by rewriting. If you are too given to writing clutter, this method is for you. The process is simple: using a critical eye, go back through everything you’ve created and scrape the unnecessary bits off. Currycomb your work. Don’t rest until it sounds exactly as you want it and tells only that.
Cluttered work is uninteresting and isn’t clear. Instead of using a few precise words, it favors putting a lot of vague ones in which only serve to confuse the reader. The reader doesn’t want to read a lot of seemingly words; they want to read a story. The more you clutter your work, the less clear it becomes, the more boring it becomes. Don’t fall victim to this. Check and re-check your work for clutter.
Creative Challenge: Make a lengthy, hard-to-understand sentence using as many adverbs and adjectives as you can. Then, with your powers of good sense, mercilessly destroy anything that doesn’t get your point across. Notice the right words and keep them, and anything that sounds overly poetic needs to go.
Good luck, and happy writing!