Assorted Opinions: Unnecessary Words
One Size Fits None
Have you ever felt that when a celebrated author flouts Strunk and White-ish dos and don’ts (passive voice, adverbs, use of, that vs. which, etc.), her trailblazing gives hope to the little people?
(And every time you’re told not to do something, isn’t it the thing you’ve just done?)
In fiction writing, “errors”, supposedly against rules, often are founded on illogical premises…which is to stand a thing in opposition to its own existence. Why? Because rules (really guidelines) that are needed, evolve naturally from the apparency of the need, and are curtailed naturally by the apparency of its limitations. Nagging opportunities that evolve from the wish to apply some authority dogmatically and across the board, function as their own gratification, but poorly as alleged principles.
Periodically, in Assorted Opinions, I will tackle some of the popular axioms on writing.
Consider these different ways of opening a story.
There was rain falling on the roof.
“There was” places the narrator at a distance from the scene. We assume the omniscient voice; he/she may be inside or outside the roof in question, and may or may not appear in this work as a character. We may not meet the hero before the stage has been set, or some history recounted. (Extra: You’re not required, as a writer, to pitch for this, but notice the stressed/unstressed patter of the sentence. You can choose your words to echo the action.)
Rain fell on the roof.
This has the sound of a closer narration; it implies the character, or group of characters, are in a place. The observation is someone’s perception.
Rain was falling on the roof.
All of the above, plus this makes the rain a condition that brackets the action or conversation to follow, as opposed to “fell”, where it is another component of a past event.
He heard rain.
You can shorthand all the way to this pithiest sentence of three words, with the character in the thick of the narrative, while the sense of place is implied. (If he were not indoors, he would perceive the rain more involvedly than merely to hear it.)
But then, to maintain that for having fewest words, this last is best, is to rate other ways of telling a story less valid; validity would be measured on the grounds of pithiness alone—which writers know is not how we work.
Most simply, an unnecessary word that counts as such, would be any the character wouldn’t know or use, in speech, or in narration that follows her thoughts and viewpoint.
(But, note, if I had said, “…in a narration that follows her thoughts and viewpoint…”, I would only have specified “this narration I’m talking about” as opposed to the notion of narration; while I might do the opposite—taking “her” away and the “s” from thoughts—to make thought and viewpoint into concepts, rather than examples.)
If I begin my story: “He had come indoors when it had started to rain”, I could (and should) dispense with the clunky second “had”, because the phrase in which it occurs is covered by the first. But can I change it to “He came indoors when it started to rain”? Only if the action has presently finished.
Were I to write:
He came indoors when it started to rain. Dressed, and sitting at the lunch table, he toyed with his fork…
…the words would take on a feeling of incongruity, order-of-events-wise.
And there is the whole field of humorous effect, wherein all verbosity, tautology, persiflage, rusticity and urbanity, confusion and conflation, are fine and useful.
So at the least remove or replace words:
- That are not true to the voice narrating.
This wedging-in process is tempting to writers of historical fiction, where there is so much information to impart.
(Every time Maryanne passed the Frickerson manor, her thoughts turned naturally to its origins—once an alehouse, erected at what, in 1786, had been a crossroads, marked with the first milestone beyond the village limits; the landlord, Jonas Fricherssen, also a barber by trade, and living with his family in the upstairs loft…)
- That are covered by predecessors.
- Whose meaning is implied by circumstance:
(He knocked his wine glass over on the table, and ruined the cloth.)
- That have the wrong number of syllables for the rhythm of the sentence.
- That are key—noun, verb, adjective, adverb…in that this particular word communicates the very point you’re making, and needs to be vivid. It doesn’t hurt to give second thoughts to categorical nouns: people, trees, machinery, vehicles; and to simple verbs, at times the character can do something more acute than make, go, see.
- If a word doesn’t on the page carry visual weight, or when spoken internally, emotional weight. (But again, not necessarily so in dialogue, or when aiming for humorous effect.)
Bury That Thing
You are familiar with news articles that go something like this:
DIY Project Yields Clue to Thirty-Year-Old Mystery
Tearing out drywall in an upstairs bedroom, Mike and Carol Merganser, of Watsier Point, made a gruesome discovery yesterday.
The Mergansers, high school sweethearts who married soon after graduating from Providence State University in 1975, moved to this quiet New Jersey suburb shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected president. Mr. Merganser is a longtime employee of Brutalitec Industries…
If you’re a typical reader, this is where you’d be saying to yourself, “Don’t care. What’s gruesome?” (Likewise the news site doesn’t much care, when you scroll down, and more ads load.)
The lead is buried. Or is it lede?
Typically, the explanation for the spelling is that in linotype days the machinery used “leads” (of the metal kind), and to avoid confusion, the newsroom produced its own coinage. Possibly. The Mergenthaler (manufacturer of the Linotype machine) company manual spoke of matrices, slugs, magazines…“leads” seems not an official vocabulary word, but names for things can evolve.
And yet, picturing the matter intuitively…saying, for instance, that an editor had written, “Where’s the lead?” on a piece of copy’s margin, is it likely the reporter would mumble: “Well, this can’t be meant for me”; and afterwards, in the composing room, the linotypist would say to himself, “Huh. I don’t get it”?
This would be something like calling salient facts “bullets”, rather than leads, and fearing they’d get confused with the kind the security guard in the lobby uses, so in the newsroom, they should be called “bulléts.”
However, professions can use their own terminology, origin story plausible or otherwise. Why does “lede” annoy people?
I think it’s because the spelling suggests cultural studies concept-words, such as “mores” and “anomie”. Lede makes it seem as though an underlying contention exists, for an article of grand themes, offering subtext and symbolic layering. Lede looks very much like a Jungian term, and when it confronts someone unexpectedly, they must imagine they’re being told intellectual doings are afoot—and being talked down to.
(2018, Stephanie Foster)