Monday, October 21, 2013

On writing: Just say it!

I've been working on the introduction to the book manuscript, trying to write my way into Flavia's third stage of writing (writing excitement).  One of the things I'm noticing is where I'm hedging, and these are some words I'm replacing, along with the little lectures I'm giving myself:

  • Basically. Why is it basic, and if it's basic, why do you have to tell the reader it's basic? 
  • Also. Go ahead--I dare you to do this: copy & replace every "also" with nothing (I say to myself).  Does it make a difference? If it does, you didn't need it.
  • In particular. Can't you see that it's a particular example? 
  • Attempts to serve as, attempts to prove.  It does or it doesn't. Get off the fence and make this a more definite verb.
  • Is also evident in. How about "informs," a more definite verb?
  • Dashes and semicolons. Think about how your eyes glaze over when you see a semicolon-laden sentence, however nicely parallel the clauses are.  What are you, a writer or a mouse?  If you need a new sentence, start one. 
  • Way in which. Is anyone really going to care if you say "how" instead? 
  • Trendy words--er, important critical terms like "discourse." Do you really need these words?
  • Thus.  If the inference really does logically follow what you've said, do you need to signal it? "Thus" is important when you're presenting a paper, but is it a signpost that the written paragraph really needs? 
  • Just as . . . so too and Not only . . . but also.  Apparently First Draft Undine loves these parallelisms, but Subsequent Drafts Undine should learn that she is not the 21st-century Henry James of sentence stylings or Milton in writing epic similes. 
  • This doesn't even count the places where I add in a critic who maybe wrote something that referred in passing to a text in 1992 and who I see in my imagination glaring at me and crucifying me in reviews if I don't cite him or her. 
It takes a long time to write a shorter version, so hedging in an initial draft is just part of the process.  I sometimes think, though, that we should track our manuscript words to give ourselves an extra bonus for writing fewer rather than more words in a day. 

What words are you deleting today? 


Flavia said...

This is so great. I do the same thing, and with many of the same words and phases and punctuation marks that you note. Ever since grad school, when revising I try to impose quotas on things I know I overuse (e.g., only one em-dash--or one pair of em-dashes--per paragraph; "however" once every two paragraphs, etc.).

The drafting tic I'm most noticing these days is that I use TONS of doublets. My sentences are full of people who "resist and obstruct," or "finesse and refine," or whose "corrections and emendations extend and extrapolate." (And yes, there will sometimes be two or three in a single sentence!)

I don't have a problem with doublets per se, and often find them quite pleasing. But when I'm drafting they sprout up everywhere, usually as a sign that I haven't figured out what I REALLY mean. When I revise, I rarely keep either one--having settled on a single term that better gets at whatever I want to say.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I think I'm going to print this out and put it by my computer. Not, as you say, for first-draft Notorious (she just needs to get words on the page!), but for revisions.

Anonymous said...

Great list. I will say, I use "in particular" a bit to draw the readers attention to a specific subset of a larger group. Something like, "Intervention X has been shown to improve [academic outcome] in [example case study]. In particular, they found the most convincing evidence for improvement [among special sub-populations, or in specific outcome area]."

My personal pet peeves are over-use of introductory clauses, "in order to," and agree with Flavia - doublets. And unnecessary adverbs/adjectives ("very" being the poster child).

nicoleandmaggie said...

In econ we're supposed to go through and delete all adjectives before sending. (And God help you if you even put an adverb down on the page!)

Historiann said...

Great list. Adverbs are the hallmark of the uncertain writer.

Be confident! Be bold! Embrace certainty. If you don't trust yourself, no one else will.

undine said...

Flavia--I love doublets, too! Why use one verb when two will do, right? Seriously, there's something about the sound that must be appealing.

Notorious--If you think of some more, add them!

Anonymous--I use "in particular," but I overuse it in drafts--and yes, "very" is always a red flag.

nicoleandmaggie--wow. I can't tell if this makes me want to read an economics article or not read one. My sole exposure is the popular rather than scholarly magazine The Economist, which is not shy about using either of them, so it's not a good example.

Historiann--These ought to be on a banner, and I'll surely keep them front and center as I go into the afternoon writing session.

physioprof said...

My thing on first drafts is sentences with way too many independent clauses. I ruthlessly go through and break up these behemoths during revisions.

undine said...

physioprof--I do the same thing. The behemoth sentence is a thing to dread.