Writing · Writing Guide

Being Concise vs. Being Descriptive

I actually don’t think that concise writing needs to be at odds with descriptive writing, but I often see writers who will add a lot of fluff to their writing.  Usually this is for one or two reasons.  They either want their writing to come off as poetic and full of flow, or they want to sound smart.

There is a careful line to walk when you write descriptive passages.  Metaphors and similes can be used to communicate meaning and put your reader deeper into your story.  Good descriptions help the reader imagine the scene, but when the prose becomes overly poetic, it can actually work against what the writer is trying to achieve.  I have a rule of thumb when I read writing from friends.  If I have to read a sentence more than twice to understand it, it needs to be edited.  Realistically the goal should be that a reader only has to read any given sentence in your writing once to understand it.

The goal of writing is to communicate.  If your prose is too flowery or over written, it can get in the way of that communication.  Poetry is a bit different than prose, as it is often more focused on interpretation and art.  The goal of writing fiction or non-fiction is to tell a story.  If the reader has to dig through fluff to get to the story, then the writer is not doing their job correctly.  This is where the need to be concise and clear becomes important.  You want to tell a story that captivates the reader, one that they effortless fall into without realizing it.  If your descriptions are understandable, it removes one more obstacle for the reader, and they then can get lost in your story.  

Another trend I’ve seen among some writing groups I’ve been involved in, is the need to sound intelligent by using big and seldom seen words.  I’m going to rely on the wisdom of the R&B group TLC to help explain my point.  “Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”   This adage can also be applied to words.  In day and age where a good thesaurus is just a click away, it may be tempting to find a word that looks cool and replace the mundane word you had originally.

Do not do this!  Stick to words that you both know and understand.  Not all words that a thesaurus provides are completely interchangeable and really, if your goal is to make your writing sound edgy or smart, you will have defeated the purpose.  There will be readers out there who know what that word means and they will realize you’ve used it incorrectly.  So stick to words you know and try to expand your vocabulary. 

If you do have a big word and you know how to use it, make sure there are contextual cues for those that may not know the word.  This means that the sentence and prose surrounding the word give the reader enough information that they can infer what the word means.

Flowery and big words does not a good story make.  Many people argue that books like the Twilight series are full of bad writing.  Maybe, but it is writing you can understand and a story that is compelling enough that the books sold alarmingly well.  You want to assume your reader is intelligent, so do not talk down to them, but also do not make them pick up a dictionary every other minute while reading your work.  It’s the quickest way to get them to put down your story.

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