marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

Sidewise Advice On How To Develop Style, Part IV

Parts I, II, and III were a while back -- but at the time I think it exhausted what advice I had to give on the topic.

It's gotten some more pondering since.  Many hours spent tweaking words to say what I wanted them to say led to some conclusions.  The first of which is that to develop style you need to develop the habit of eying every word to see if you really want it.

The second of which is that some of the rules you hear thrown about are often not only good for improving the prose in themselves but which develop the habit.  Some of which could stand to be strengthened in themselves.

In the arena of verbs, you have probably heard the rule about avoiding the passive voice.  (Sometimes from those who need to learn what it is.)  This is a little weak.  What you really want to avoid is any superfluous use of auxiliary verbs.  Reduce the verb to one word if you can, two if you must -- or more, because sometimes you do need those subtleties.  Most of the time you need more vigor.  And I have read structures like:

"Look at that." He pointed his sword. She could see the red zeppelin floating toward them.

and my little editorial imp says, "She saw."

All forms of "to be" should get an especially wary eyes.  The passive voice, yes.  The progressive voice also, unless you can't structure the sentence so as to make the continuation of the action clear without it.  But the use as a linking verb is often very, very, very weak.

Especially in the construction "There was" or "It was".  Two words of pure deadweight.  It's amazing how often it can be recast even if you don't get rid of the "to be".  "There were three trees by the road." -- "Three trees were by the road."  If, indeed, you don't go all the way to "Three trees stood by the road."

It's amazing, when you come to it, how much description can be coaxed into an active voice -- The red and yellow flowers nodded in a passing breeze.  The pool spread beneath the blue sky.  The afternoon sunlight sprawled over the waters. -- though I point out that the actions chosen are lazy and deliberate ones.  You want to load your language; if it's vivid, it will vividly convey something that neutral language would not.  A peaceful scene should not have flowers bursting with color.

Akin to "there is" are the phrases "most of the", "some of the", "one of the."  Nine times of ten, you can just write "most", or "some" or "a" -- and when you can't write "a" you can often write "one."  You really need the "of the" only when you have not made clear before then what group the phrase is referring to.  Or implied it.  If the king orders a man arrested in court, we will assume there are soldiers.

A more general rule is to try to include as little as possible that does not appeal to the senses.  Avoiding the dead infrastructure of language helps.  But it's a knack that takes a lot of working at a word level to develop.
Tags: choosing words, style

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