Specific Words

Don’t settle for writing that’s bland.2014 11 desk ajs CU IMG_2725

by Andy Scheer

An hour after I edited an article by novelist Brandilyn Collins about using what she called “compression,” my lunchtime reading brought me an example of its effectiveness.

Collins advocated not merely writing that was lean, but writing built around words that evoke specific images and carry strong connotations.

Rather than have a character sit in a chair, Collins says, show the character’s attitude by having her slouch or perch. The right verb eliminates the need for a sentence telling about the character’s attitude.

Time for lunch. I opened to page 181 of William Dietrich’s light historical adventure The Barbed Crown. Between two scenes leading up to Napoleon’s coronation as emperor, Dietrich supplied this bit of exposition of a Paris street scene:

Commoners buzzed like an agitated hive. People sensed that history had turned a page and something glorious and terrible was about to be commemorated. They would tell their neighbors, in the momentous years to come, that they’d witnessed the beginning. Hawkers sold coffee and rolls. Enterprising merchants nearby charged two francs to use their privies. The most tireless prostitutes assembled, at nine in the morning, under paper Chinese lanterns strung along an arcade, to advertise their wares. Farmers from the countryside gawked.

Nouns
Considering Collins’s advices about compression, I dissected that paragraph. Take a look at Dietrich’s use of nouns.

Commoners buzzed like an agitated hive. People sensed that history had turned a page and something glorious and terrible was about to be commemorated. They would tell their neighbors, in the momentous years to come, that they’d witnessed the beginning. Hawkers sold coffee and rolls. Enterprising merchants nearby charged two francs to use their privies. The most tireless prostitutes assembled, at nine in the morning, under paper Chinese lanterns strung along an arcade, to advertise their wares. Farmers from the countryside gawked.

Verbs
Now look at his verbs.

Commoners buzzed like an agitated hive. People sensed that history had turned a page and something glorious and terrible was about to be commemorated. They would tell their neighbors, in the momentous years to come, that they’d witnessed the beginning. Hawkers sold coffee and rolls. Enterprising merchants nearby charged two francs to use their privies. The most tireless prostitutes assembled, at nine in the morning, under paper Chinese lanterns strung along an arcade, to advertise their wares. Farmers from the countryside gawked.

Phrases
Finally, his phrases.

Commoners buzzed like an agitated hive. People sensed that history had turned a page and something glorious and terrible was about to be commemorated. They would tell their neighbors, in the momentous years to come, that they’d witnessed the beginning. Hawkers sold coffee and rolls. Enterprising merchants nearby charged two francs to use their privies. The most tireless prostitutes assembled, at nine in the morning, under paper Chinese lanterns strung along an arcade, to advertise their wares. Farmers from the countryside gawked.

All this in a paragraph of exposition. No wonder Dietrich’s readers have followed the adventures of Ethan Gage through six hardcover releases.

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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