Though I always intended to be a writer, I started my career as a journalist, an editor for a technical magazine. My coworkers were all journalism majors — Word Nazis, I affectionately (sometimes) called them. For them, there’s right and wrong when it comes to language. We writers, of course, live for those gray areas, where we can use language in new and creative ways to make it “say” something no one has ever said before, at least the way we said it.
However, I grudgingly came to realize the journalists had some good ideas. Two of their sayings have stuck with me over the years, and I think they have helped both my writing and my fiction editing: “Conciseness with clarity,” and “Never use a $5 word when a $1 word will do.”
Obviously, conciseness is king in journalism. If the publisher wants to shoehorn in another sixth-page ad, you the editor have to cut copy to make it fit. Even if it really doesn’t fit. So you cut a word here or there, rework a sentence slightly to save a word, cut a sentence that is redundant, and before you know it, you have a sixth-page hole. The beauty is, the copy ends up tight and lean, easy to read. The reader doesn’t get sidetracked by extra words. In fiction, it focuses the reader’s attention on the story, not the language, and removes the redundancies that frustrate the reader. It makes the language transparent so the story is easier to “see.”
However, the goal is conciseness with clarity. If you cut too much, sentences (and plots) don’t make sense. And you can remove the beauty of the language. You can’t sacrifice the reader’s understanding and enjoyment just to make it fit. You want the story to have the exact number of words it needs, not one more or one less.
The second rule is painful for a lot of writers. We’re wordsmiths; we love words. We love learning obscure words that capture nuances and connotations. But when the words become a distraction — when your readers are running to the online dictionary every five minutes, or when they’re thinking more about the language than the story (“the book is so beautifully written, but not much happens”) — they aren’t helping the writer; they’re doing more harm than good. The last thing you want to do is make your readers feel stupid or talked-down-to.
Reading should be a pleasure. Make it beautiful, make it different, but don’t make it work. Lord knows we all have enough of that already.