As a fiction writer, I use words to build bridges to my readers’ emotions and imaginations. My goal is to attract them to the characters and world I have created in my story, and keep them there until they have finished. Ideally, every word or phrase I choose in the course of writing my story should contribute to the readers’ enchantment.
The trouble is, I possess a common writer’s vice: the tendency to fall in love with the sound of my own voice. That can make it difficult to distance myself sufficiently from my writing to edit it properly.
So I begin by turning to advice my writer father gave me. When you’ve finished your first draft, he said, go back and cross out every adjective and adverb in the piece. Then put back only those adjectives and adverbs that are absolutely necessary to convey your meaning. This practice, he said, helps streamline sentences, and weed out text that might bring a reader up short.
Adjectives and adverbs aren’t the only words in a text requiring scrutiny. Extra-long sentences, parenthetical statements, distinctive words repeated in the same paragraph, and foreign languages all can bring the reader to a screeching halt. I’ve made all these mistakes plenty of times.
For example, for a science fiction novel I invented an entire alien language, complete with dictionary and grammar. I was so enamored of this language that I filled my novel with it, putting translation in parenthesis after each alien sentence.
The following paragraph, taken from an early version of the manuscript, is probably the most extreme example of this:
“The alien Security Chief had used Standard, not Simplified, Mánafut, rich with subsonics no Firster (or Human) could ever have hoped to emulate or (in fact) perceive fully. Caught offguard, Van Houten had frantically blinked his A.I., and a subinstant later there had run through his head the memestring úuli’chi’nyík/tevá: adj. from húv, horror or depression, literally, the emotion displayed by infrared fur-changes + li’c, genitive of lóho, impersonal you (literally, you without scent) + hírrimní, adv., apt to be controlled by + k/(kret)teva, pl. n., (minute) pheromonal changes. Whereupon Van Houten had replied, as nonchalantly as he had been capable, ‘You mean, Chief Kívik, that I’m nuts, too?’ Whereupon his new partner had once again exploded into hooting alien laughter.”
Anyone can see that the paragraph is virtually unreadable, but for a long time my attachment to the hours and hours I had spent developing the alien tongue blinded me to that fact.
In the end I wised up and deleted everything in the paragraph except the last two sentences. I also cut out the two “whereupons”, theadverbial phase beginning “as nonchalantly,” “Chief Kívik” (it’s obvious from the context to whom he’s speaking), and the adjectives “new”, “once”, and “hooting alien”. Thus the paragraph became:
“Van Houten had replied, ‘You mean that I’m nuts, too?’ His partner had again exploded into laughter.”
It’s not Pulitzer material, but it sure is easier to read!