Friday, May 22, 2009

Strength in Writing

One of the biggest failings in modern writing - especially online and in the niche markets - is a lack of strength. By that, I mean too many modifiers, improper punctuation (and, because of that, run-on sentences), and unnecessary words in general.

Now, let me assure you, I make the same mistakes. Furthermore, I am not one of these people who thinks you should kill every modifier and only send out terse, curt sentences which do little more than describe the immediate scene or action. However, I know to look for these mistakes in my own writing - where I almost never see them (though they are there) - which may be why they are so apparent to me in others'.

The truth is that I have written many a sentence I knew would be better served without the adjectives and adverbs included, but which I felt needed those modifiers. For example, I cannot truthfully say, "I had no coffee," because I did have a little - just not enough to make a full pot. I understand that "I had a little coffee, but not enough to make a full pot," is a weaker sentence, but it also conveys the entirety of the situation. As a writer, I have to stop and examine which rendering best serves the piece, as a whole.

Is this situation integral to the rest of the story? Even if not, does it best serve the character(s), situation, or story? Maybe the story is about a wishy-washy protagonist who has problems deciding anything for certain; in this case, the longer, weaker sentence is the best communication, as the sentence is conveying far more than just the immediate situation.

Brevity is not always the problem; choice of words and vocabulary is just as important. In the sentence above, I could have said "...the longer, weaker sentence seems the best communication..." That word choice results in a weaker sentence, but is it more correct than using the definite is? In this case, it is not: there is no arguing that the longer sentence would be the best choice in a story involving an indecisive lead (not for our purposes, anyway). In this example, seems is the wrong choice for two reasons: it is not definitive and thus lacks power, and it incorrectly insinuates the matter is subjective when it is not.

Many times, comedy uses copious modifiers to heighten or achieve comedic effect. Improper punctuation is also incorporated for this effect. Especially in today's Web-based world, a flurry of likes and conjunctions strung together is a punchline in and of itself - "Cuz that's like, you know, the world we live in and stuff, but not like really, but you know, kinda?"

Comedy writing is one of the hardest forms for a host of reasons, but one key thing I must mention: writing comedy for performance is completely different from writing it to be read. Actors and comedy writers often praise one another for good reason: a good actor can enliven even the most mundane of punchlines, and great material limps from a bad actor's mouth as it crashes to the ground. When writing comedy (even a comedic line within a larger, decidedly non-comedic work), the actor is removed from the equation; the material stands or falls on its own.

In their brilliantly funny piece, Cracked writers, Ned Resnikoff and Peter Hildebrand, take us on an historical tour of the 7 Insane Conspiracies That Actually Happened. While I recommend the entire piece (and basically all of Cracked's lists, for that matter), I want to draw your attention to a laughline in #4, near the end of the page.

Go ahead and read the article; I don't want to spoil anything for you. I'll wait.


(I figured I'd throw that in for good measure.)

The laughline in the second paragraph reads:

In accordance with the teachings of their faith, they apparently decided that the best way to solve their problems was to kill everyone.

It got a good laugh out of me, but it would have gotten a louder one, had it been written:

In accordance with the teachings of their faith, they decided the best way to solve their problems was to kill everyone.

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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