Dear Gather Jammers:
Itâ€™s Prose Week again here at SunWinks! Every week, we alternate between a topic pertaining to prose style and a topic pertaining to poetic technique.
For the past several SunWinks! columns devoted to Prose Style, weâ€™ve been talking about what it takes to craft lively, effective prose. Bottom line is, the best writers, like the best athletes, are lean and mean. Lean equals mean! If your prose isnâ€™t lean, nobody will know or care what you mean!
Off the top of my head, here are the rules:
- Use smaller words.
- Use fewer words.
- Prefer concrete terms and images to abstractions.
- Prefer active voice (verb form) to passive.
- Always try to use a strong, transitive (vs. intransitive) verb in place of the verb â€œto beâ€ (is, are, was, etc.)
- Never use an adjective and a noun when a better noun will do the job.
- Never use an adverb and a verb when a stronger verb will do the job.
- Be precise, use the right word, and make sure you are saying what you mean to.
In style book after style book, I find the same rules up and down the line.
Hereâ€™s a personal essay I posted a few days ago.Â I thought it would be instructive to let you see how I pared it down or punched it up.Â And how it could have been even better.
WHAT I WROTE, FINALLY
WHAT I MIGHT HAVE BUT DIDNâ€™T SETTLE FOR
Behind our house there's an English Garden about the size of a squash court.
Thereâ€™s a garden area behind our house thatâ€™s about 15 feet by 30 feet.
It features a concrete table with concrete benches and a concrete birdbath.Â It's walled on two sides by colonnades of arborvitae twelve feet tall.
Technically, â€œColonnades of twelve-foot-tall arborvitae wall the garden on two sidesâ€ would have been even better, eliminating the â€œto beâ€ verb and passive construction â€œIt is walledâ€¦byâ€.Â I made a choice to lead with the wall idea.Â Howeverâ€¦
A rule we havenâ€™t talked about is: avoid writing a string of sentences of similar length and construction. It sounds ham-handed and sing-song, unless youâ€™re Papa Hemingway.Â These two sentences would be even better written as one, thus: â€œWalled on two sides by colonnades of arborvitaeâ€¦ , it features a concrete tableâ€¦â€
Voila!Â All three problems solved!Â Iâ€™ve gotten rid of the â€œto beâ€ verb and the parallel construction and led with the wall image.
There are rows of tall trees running along two sides.
A majestic rotunda of a maple tree dominates the near end of the garden.
A big maple tree stands at one end of the garden.
Rows of garden lights once marked out the paths and the birdbath had had a fountain in the center; both ceased working almost as soon as we moved in. We rent the house, and though we both work, we couldn't justify maintaining that sort of luxury on property we didn't own.Â The same went for the in-ground sprinkler system.
There used to be lights in the ground alongside the paths.
Once or twice we paid someone to weed the plot, but had been letting it go to seed for many years. The blackberry vines overwhelming the area stood as high as, well, an elephant's eye.
There were blackberry vines as high as I am.
(â€œelephantâ€™s eyeâ€ is an allusion to the song â€œOklahomaâ€)
Underneath that, a thick carpet of ivy overran the ornamental flowers and everything else that once grew there.
Ivy covered the ground where ornamental flowers and other plants used to grow.
It had even overgrown the smallish alder tree to a height of ten feet, obscuring it as completely and opaquely as a leafy, emerald nun's habit.
Completely hiding the trunk.
I was just a wee bit chagrined upon seeing Donna, our boarder, picking the blackberries off the brambles and
I was really embarrassedâ€¦
An example of litotes (understatement)
decided to reclaim the garden for a writing grotto.
decided I wanted to clean the garden up and use it as a place for doing my writing.
First I pulled out the blackberry vines. Some of the stalks coming out of the ground were woody and thick as bamboo.
surprisingly thick and hard.
I hacked down the maple and alder saplings and raked the sun-yellow maple leaves out of the ivy. The wind came up and buttered the garden again, twice, and twice more I raked the ivy.
Scattered leaves all over the garden
â€œbuttered the gardenâ€ is a metaphor
After the third time, Sir Leafs-a-lot has pretty much exhausted his ammunition.
The maple tree has lost most of its leaves.
Personification, pun, and metaphor
Now I come to the overrun alder.
At this point, Iâ€™ve come around to the task of pulling all that ivy down off the alder tree.
Thinking I was just going to pull the vines off the tree trunk, I quickly got a reality check. Â The ivy vines were as thick as my thumb and as woody as the tree underneath, and wrapped around the trunk and limbs in the strangleholds of an old witchâ€™s arthritic claws.
Wrapped tightly around the trunk and going around the limbs in all directions
I cut through the thick ivy roots up and down the tree in a hundred places with a pair of long-handled pruning shears, and pulled off the ivy clump by tenacious clump.
(Cleaner yet: â€œI cut through the thick roots in a hundred places with long-handled pruning shearsâ€¦â€)
With difficulty one clump at a time.
Find a flaccid piece of writing of yours. Rewrite it using the above rules to make it tighter and more vivid. Show us both versions.
- PutÂ SunWE in the title and tags.
- Share your post with Gather Writing Essential group.
- Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to. Â (If responding to todayâ€™s, put Lean and Mean in the title field.)
- This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.Â If your piece isnâ€™t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.Â This is supposed to be fun.
- I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
- If you would like a little more academic critiqueâ€”but still very friendly and positiveâ€”include the word "rigorous" in your post (e.g. "rigorous critique wanted").
Responses to previous prompts below. Let me know if I missed yours.
byÂ Pam Brittain
byÂ Priya P.
byÂ G.M. Jackson
byÂ Janey M.
Â© 2012 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Â Please share this on Gather.com, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy. Â Doug's latest book is The Depressed Guy's Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.
Doug's Gather Group is Depression and Creativity, devoted to creative writing about depression and related illnesses, and creative writing as therapy. Â Please consider joining. Â You can read more of Doug's posts there, or here.