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Brevity Is the Soul of Lit(erature)!

May 20, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 156

When Abraham Lincoln delivered the 271 words of his Gettysburg Address, he received only polite and scattered applause. No photo of him standing on the stage exists because he had finished speaking by the time the lone photographer, who thought the event might be worthy of recording, got set up. What has gone down as one of America's greatest pieces of writing (about half the number in this piece) is also a great example of choosing one's words carefully for brevity, content, and impact.

Many authors (include me in that group), become so enamored with their style of prose that they pound out words like a runaway freight train. This affliction is the antithesis of writer's block and is called logorrhea (excessive verbosity). Gratuitous wordage is actually encouraged by some well-known publishing guidelines that most authors have heard about. We are told what various genres require in maximum/minimum number of words, as if volume is the all important metric.

I once worked for a consulting group whose total output was written reports. My boss once took a report I had written and, without reading a word, hefted it in the palm of his hand. "Doesn't pass the weight test," he said. A clear concise report, with an economy of words, risked a customer feeling he didn't get his money's worth. No matter how succinct those words might have been, there had to be a minimum number of pages to present to the customer. This made for a lot of cutting and pasting of boilerplate to beef up reports.

If an author has penned a really nice 50,000 word novel, there's a good chance that a publisher (if the writer has the good fortune to get it in front of one) will say, "It needs to be 80,000. We don't publish novellas." That's a magic number for publishers, as it makes a book the proper "heft." It's a good thing Abraham Lincoln didn't know about such rules. Edward Everett, the speaker who preceded Lincoln at Gettysburg that day, spoke some 13,000 words, taking some two hours to deliver them. The irony is that no one's ever heard about Everett's speech, while many schoolchildren have memorized Abe Lincoln's.

Here's another example of how ridiculous word metrics can be. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone With the Wind had some 419,000 words. Do you think Margaret Mitchell could get that book published today?

I admit it's hard to go back over something I've written to beef-up the word count. It's even harder to chop out what I perceive as "eloquent phrasing." I recently read Richard Walter's book on screenwriting to help me understand the elements of that craft and found his rules applied to prose as well. I synthesized Walter's advice into three sentences that I've tacked up above my computer screen. Each time I review something I've written, I ask myself these questions:

• Does this sentence advance the storyline? • Does this sentence develop the character(s)? • Does this sentence help integrate the story's action?

If the writing I'm looking at doesn't pass one of those tests, it's definitely a candidate for the delete button.

Raff is an author who took early retirement from a career in the computer industry to pursue a writing career. He has two non-fiction books in print. Information about him and his work may be found at http://www.raffellis.com

Source: EzineArticles
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