Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Tug-of-War Between Great Fatty Sentences Stuffed With Mustard and Mayo, and Slim Ones

What do we talk about when we talk about concision? How does a clipped sentence acquire the complexity of a page-fattening assault of semicolons and digressions? Is this a genuine artform or a logical editing and writing process? Can we make everything significant?

When I write, I set out to craft each line with care and precision, tweaking and trimming those supersized lines, those paunches on the svelte waistline of my paragraphs. Usually this approach lasts four minutes and I suck up words like a fatso gobbling burgers at the onset of famine. Afterwards, I retch out carbs until my story struts along the catwalk with the buffed elegance of a supermodel. The end product: a sort of unsteady toddle-wobble. Like a finding one’s balance after deep-gut liposuction.

It seems to me two accordions are being squeezed in the same direction. The first accordion, style, wants to show its flair and pizzazz, wants to make its mark on the page, waggling those buns of skill. The second accordion, the inner editor, knows the value of concision, how stories thrive on packing as much meaning into one sentence as possible, not cling-filming it over the whole piece. We want the freedom to write without the pressure of this micro-burden, without having to think on a line-by-line basis. But want our works lean. Sharp.

So what are benefits of sentence-by-sentence agony? Will spending an hour on one line lead to a sentence strung together by a dozen contrasting ideas, fighting for attention, or a shining little profound lovely? For me, too much chopping and changing can lead to post-op face-freaks. The process can be torturous if we take an example:

The man sat on the chair.

We take a boring a little sentence (which we shouldn’t be writing anyway), then we set at with our callipers. We want the tone to be humorous, to reveal a little character, and add description:

The plump little humbug plopped his buttocks on the hard-backed hot-seat.

We step away from this puffed-up sentence, then tinker. We argue to ourselves that the rhythm falters at ‘buttocks,’ where there should be a similar descriptive to match the multi-syllable counterparts for the man and the seat. So we torture the sentence further:

The plump little humbug plopped his big blue buttocks on the hard-backed hot-seat.

Now we’ve added ‘big blue,’ which doesn’t work since buttocks aren’t blue and it’s not clear enough to refer to his trousers (and who wears blue trousers, even in a ‘humorous’ sentence?), we’re adding to the carb content of this sentence. We’re adding detail, but we’re so fat we’re almost shut-ins. So, in a panic, we chop out some carb:

The plump humbug plopped his butt on the rickety old seat.

This sentence is still, quite clearly, a turd. Too much is being stuffed into the sentence to get across as much as possible while still retaining the humour (or style) and keeping it slim. So in a further panic, after staring at it for an hour, we trim it right down:

Mike sat down.

This tells us two things: his name and his physical state. It doesn’t show that the writer knows what he’s doing. (He isn’t, but good writing makes it look as though he does). Next we do a little word analysis of previous sentences. ‘Plump’ is a good comic word, with its pinging P sound. So plump stays. Yes. We don’t need ‘humbug’. It sounds a little forced, too carb next to plump. We don’t need ‘plopped’ either. Nor a funny word for the buttocks. The whole sentence reeks of trying too hard. And trying to hard is possibly the biggest hurdle of the writer seeking concision. Trying too hard to lard in info to make that golden sentence. How about:

Mike, plump and proud, sat on the crooked chair.*

I like this version since it reveals the comedic fatness and ‘proud’ (depending on the context), might refer to a moment of personal pride before he approaches the chair or his general demeanour. I like ‘crooked’ for chair as it’s literal and anthropomorphises the chair a wee bit. The double alliteration isn’t favourable, but can be overlooked for now.

So can we define concision as, essentially, a careful and precise word choice? Why not. When sentences get fat is when they have too many words signifying nothing. Or too many words with basic, simple meanings, giving the prose nothing but a surface. I think creating line-by-line depth involves making individual choices, weighing them against alternatives, then assessing their function in the sentences before and after. Which means the concision process, then, is probably better saved for draft number two.

This may sound basically obvious, but it’s simple to forget when faced with the blank page and apathy. Next time: how to bake a dolphin.


* Note this is supposed to be an example of an OK sentence, not a flabbergastingly good one.


  1. Good points. I try to imagine I have to pay a penny for each word I write. Sometimes it would be required to pay more than I'd like to get a point across, if it's a complex subject or needs specific detail. But why pay more pennies than necessary, if the same point can be made with more brevity?

  2. That's an odd tactic, but I can see the value. Imposing imaginary financial constraints in my writing isn't something I'd do until I was far wealthier, though. Two worlds colliding etc.