On Writing Economically: A Challenge

I once argued with a man, whose writing I greatly admire, about a phrase he used in conversation. He is a brilliant man, but not musically trained, so I surmised that he’d simply never learned the actual definition of the word in musical terms. The word was crescendo. I often hear that particular word used incorrectly, which I find fascinating, because it is a word that combines a literal economy and a lovely cadence.

What do I mean by “economy,” you ask? Well, now, that is a good question and while I never give writing advice (because I don’t feel like I’m qualified), this idea has become more of an art form for me, so I thought I’d share it.

When writing (or speaking publicly), a greater clarity can be achieved by minimizing extraneous words and phrases, replacing them with single words that convey the same meaning. Crescendo is such a word. It is frequently used at the end of the phrase “rising to a crescendo.” Ironic, considering that the word MEANS “rising.” A musical crescendo describes a piece which begins quietly (or piano) and rises gradually to forte.

There are a number of words that easily replace a wordy phrase and give more accurate descriptions of action. Take the phrase “gives out,” for example. There are several meanings for that phrase. The sentence, “her knee gives out,” is entirely different than “she gives out candy.” And there are several, more descriptive words available to better communicate the image to the reader. Replacing the word “failed” for “gives out” in the first example gives a stronger sense of disappointment. “Buckled” communicates a more serious injury and “snapped” more serious still.

This particular exercise forced me to focus on the phrases are the worst offenders. A common culprit is “in regards to,” which should be replaced with “regarding.” Nice. Neat. Economical. Once I realized that almost all offenders involved a preposition, I decided to write a list of those I could remember off the top of my head.

Now, before I list these irritating little phrases, I want to add the caveat that phrasing used in dialog is the exception because characters speak differently. Removing extraneous phrasing requires a better than average vocabulary (and sometimes a Thesaurus) and casual conversation shouldn’t be that much work, especially if the characters are young or uneducated. But in exposition, when communicating grief, for example, the phrase “she was sad” just isn’t going to do it. “She wept,” “she grieved,” “she sobbed,” are all phrases that make the reader understand that she has lost something significant. I know that is an oversimplified example, but it works.

So, what are some other examples? Well, here you go (and feel free to add your favorites in the comments.)

Sample:
“She scooped out the ice cream into a bowl.”
Improvement:
“She scooped the ice cream into the mug she’d painted herself.”

Sample:
“She took everything out of the closet.”
Improvement:
“She emptied the closet.”
Better still:
“She gutted the closet.” This invokes a sense of violence, as though she was emptying the closet in a cathartic way.

Sample:
“She gave up.”
Improvement:
“She acquiesced.” (Communicating giving in or quitting.)
“She submitted.” (Communicating a resignation to an external force.)

There are hundreds of occasions when I’ve pulled out the thesaurus trying to find inspiration in a word that not only eliminates several other words, but inspires a clearer, more accurate description in my work. I rarely consider anything so concrete when I write because I am entirely organic in all of my artistic endeavors. But this technique, this “economy,” is more like choosing the type of paint. Sometimes, oil works better than acrylic or pencils.

13 thoughts on “On Writing Economically: A Challenge

  1. Good post, and I agree almost entirely, but I get nervous in the presence of thesauruses (thesauri?). They’re fine in the hands of a good and confidence writer. They’re a disaster in the hands of the uninitiated, leading them to use words they don’t really understand the meaning and implications of. A philosophy professor once told me about a student paper that said, “When we consider the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

    Thesaurus.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely post. I do believe it depends on the word, though. If you’re writing from the POV of a South Carolina truck driver, you’re not gonna use “He acquiesced.” I agree with crescendo, but, we also have to consider the background and the tone of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

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