Word count or Words That Count — the use and abuse of descriptors and modifiers — by David Kent


Adrianna and I have the privilege, and sometimes the tedious task, of reading many stories and pieces by a huge variety of writers.  Between students, writers that I mentor, the Writer’s Gallery, and my editing work (Adrianna has about the same sources), I see some really excellent writing, and some that leaves me cowering in the corner with bloodied eyes.

One of the biggest problems (I will use the plural here for me and my partner) that we see is the improper use of modifiers and descriptors.  In writing instruction, we continually tell people to paint their story.  Show me, don’t tell me. Fill me in on where the characters are. Don’t have an action scene on a blank canvas; show me where the action is.

From that tiny bit of instruction, many new or emerging writers think that every noun and every verb should be modified in some fashion to build their story.  Nothing could be more wrong.

In the past, I have written papers on word choice, and how it creates the magic of your writing.  Part of word choice is economy.  You know that flakey poet that lives up there in your brain? Go wake him or her up (I know they were out late last night again, but we are going to need them).

Poets will demonstrate to you, that given the constraints of their stanzas with or without an iambic foot, they have to develop their ideas with an efficiency of words and syllables that make many prose writers cry.

So what do descriptors and modifiers do for writing? They can foreshadow later events or character traits; add color or depth to a scene; purposely mislead us (in mysteries), and they can augment or diminish the importance of their subject.  What they can also do is drown your reader in superfluous information that distracts from your story while the reader is searching for the purpose of the words.

There are some descriptors that show up more often than the word tempest in Adrianna’s writing (Oh, I am going to pay for that!).  One of my favorites that I see all of the time, is useless bodily description.  “The water ran down her long slender body,” or “She brushed her raven black hair.”  Those two lines, or something very close to that, I have read at least 500 times, and in almost every instance the information was worthless to the character or story.  They were just fill-in words that the writer thought added something.

It would be different if you were building an image that may have something to do with the story: “She had an exotic beauty that left a wake of wanting admirers wherever she ventured.  Her flawless olive complexion pulled taut over the sleek toned curves up and down her statuesque figure complemented her bedroom eyes and raven hair.  But her looks were only a small part of her weaponry.”  This is the same information, but this time it is telling the reader something.  Also, we can use the word “raven” to describe her hair, rather than two descriptors that mean the exact same thing.

Don’t modify a word or use a descriptor unless it is going to convey details the reader needs to know.  You might paint a scene for a shooting in front of a grocery store: the angle of the sun, the number of cars in the parking lot, the amount of traffic both foot and vehicular, the signage, the curbs, the car stops and sidewalks could all be very important, but how the cans of vegetables are stacked on the inside of the store is more likely useless information.

If you are fond of adjectives and adverbs, write them.  Sometimes they will take the story in a surprising verve.  If you find yourself wanting to describe the vast shelves filled with leather bound books in a room with bright upholstered sofas and chairs, and dark wood tables with stained glass lamps, then maybe your characters are trying to tell you they are rich, well-read, collectors, or decorators.  If not, you might find it necessary to pare those words out in a subsequent reread and edit.

As another example, do not have your character “jump into his candy apple red Ferrari and speed away” unless the fact that it’s red, a Ferrari, or that he sped, has something to do with the story.  It is great that you see him that way, but let me in on it.  Why does it matter to me that he has a red Ferrari and speeds?  If it is only an exit from a scene, I don’t need those details.

In workshops, I often get, “Well I think he should be rich and handsome, so that’s why he has a Ferrari.”  Okay, then tell me why that has to do with your story.  If it does, go back and write it.  If it doesn’t, take out the superfluous info, and let my reader’s imagination figure out whether he got into a Chevy Lumina, a BMW 3 series, a Lincoln Town Car, or a red Ferrari.  He left; that’s all we need to know.

Reread your work carefully; don’t let your pride stand in the way of parsing your sentences and paring off unnecessary information.  Be creative with your word choice, but be economical.  Show your readers what they need to know. Don’t bog them down with information that does not drive the story or your characters.  Good writing is not about word count, it is about WORDS THAT COUNT.

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About David Kent

I promote and encourage the advancement and education of writers everywhere. I dream of a society that once again incorporated literature into the acculturation of their children, replacing the empty calories of 22 minute sitcoms and mindless reality TV. But first we write, then prod them to read, and finally hope for the best. Read more at http://writerinthemountains.blogspot.com/

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