Wednesday Workshop: Polished Into Obscurity

You can over-work something, removing that essential air of freshness and wide-eyed innocence. I appreciate that at times in a work, a sort of fresh-cut salad feeling to the words, where everything is not overwrought and laboriously went over until every word is factory-perfect and sterile. I appreciate the craft and fine-tuning part, but there are times when I desire that first read, that first impression, and that first insight is the one where the words are the truest and the patent observations the most powerful.

And the revision and editing process begins, and we often focus on grammar, sound, and completeness - with little or no thought given to preserving that fresh and snappy take on a situation or subject.

Say you throw out a perfect one-liner description of a character, such as, "Her raven-black hair and red suit made the newswoman seem more concerned with vampish looks than the truth."

Perfect, fine, leave it there. I get the picture and many of you will as well. It plays on our experience of watching overly-manicured newswomen and it is a great line.

But no, the revision process comes up, and in our tired and dogged ways after reviewing the previous 5,000 words that night with tired coffee cup in hand we hit this point. We can no longer see the wit, brevity, and freshness of the original observation. Some jaded voice inside our head says, "Description too brief. Please fluff out."

And there the 'ruining it' process begins.

We go a thousand words on her looks, feeling it important to talk about her journalism degree, the clack of her heels, the shimmer of her hair, the curve of her breasts, and all sorts of possibly well-written description that I am sure somebody will appreciate. It is all insanely great and builds character, but we go from the crisp snap of celery in a salad to the soft and mushy celery in a soup. We lose the brevity and we lose the fresh snap of wit.

We over explain.

We lose the crispness and sudden insightful takes of our first thoughts.

We write our wit and personality right out of our work.
The more you explain it, the more I don't understand it.

-Mark Twain
Imagine if Mark Twain over-edited his work, and then over explained it to make sure you got the point. He took out the style, made it pedestrian understandable and advertiser-friendly, and shoved his words through the bland-izer and fluff-machine so many times you couldn't tell the difference between them and anything else some copy-writing hack would get paid by the word for on some click-bait tell-you-what-you-already-know site listing the top-ten whatevers of all time. He loses himself in trying to sound like everyone else. The wit is written right out, and the words which were uniquely his are now the pap and filler of every-speak.

Great words come from sudden and fresh insights. They reflect our wit and personality. Failing that, great words are crafted through the natural process of reduction. There will be moments when you sold something short and need to fluff word count to get an idea across, but never forget you can also make something great by simplifying.

The short and sweet? The sudden and remarkable moment where words create the familiar pang of recognition, and then insightful stroke of art?

Lost if you overdo it.

Get the knife and cut the fat. Highlight a paragraph, and find a way to say that in one sentence. Your reader's time is precious, and people are so distracted nowadays that wasting their time chewing the gristle of our lazy and overcooked words makes you their enemy.

Give your words that fresh snap of cool, crisp celery. Put your vocabulary on a diet. Imagine your prose in a salad bar alongside other delicacies, would you pass it by or pick it up with the tongs?

It is heresy to say brevity is an ideal nowadays, with book selling sites paying us by the word and elevating word count as a measure of our self-worth as writers. I would rather read five-hundred great words than five-thousand poorly thought out ones, and often what is trying to be said in the longer version is just a stumbled-through and long-winded version of the shorter work.

If you over explain and over write, it often sounds like you have no idea what you are talking about.

Don't make the mistake of over-editing yourself into mediocrity.