Sunday, May 29, 2005

There are two articles in the LA Times today that look at writing in terms of wordiness and word economy--Les Perelman's editorial, New SAT: Write Long, Badly, and Prosper explores how wordiness, even bloviation, is rewarded in the new essay portion of the SAT, and an article in the Business Section, Search-Related Ads Rely on Poetry of Words, Numbers, explores how "Maximizers" at Google have to write three line, 95 word, ads for their clients. Their mission, writes Chris Gaither, "is worthy of a haiku writer."

I've been thinking a lot about how to find the right balance between wordiness and word paucity in the new novel I'm working on. The catalog I picked up at Copper Canyon Press last week has a quote from Strunk and White on the cover: "Omit needless words." I think this is so important, especially in poetry. And, as a poet first and foremost, I find that I gravitate toward an economy of language in my prose. My sentences and paragraphs tend to be fairly short.

I worry, though, that in my desire for pared down language, I sometimes don't spend as much time with a character, with an image, with a story line, as I should. In one of the reviews of The Book of Dead Birds, the reviewer said it felt as if I had written the book with a mandate to use as few words as possible. I kind of like this--I like boiling down work to its essence, without a lot of padding--but I also wonder if I am denying myself and my stories a more abundant and exuberant use of language.

Early in my online novel writing class, I ask students to look at the opening sentences from five random novels on their shelves. It is interesting to see how much longer the sentences are in older novels--they are unhurried, leisurely. Most modern novels have much shorter, choppier, sentences. I guess it's a reflection of the times. Things move faster; our attention spans are shorter. And long sentences do tend to distract me; I often wonder why they aren't broken down into smaller units. But I want to give myself the option of being a little more verbose and expansive than I usually allow myself to be. Not SAT-essay verbose, not Strunk and White-defying verbose. Just more open, more generous, more patient, with language.

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