Last fall, I took a course on literary stylistics, and it was a real eye-opener in terms of grammar, syntax, and style. It was headed by Jeffrey Moore, author of The Memory Artists (I have a policy never to read an author’s books before I take a seminar with them, but he won the Commonwealth Prize and I have it on good authority that he’s a fantastic author). I have been trying to segue from being a copy editor into more substantive editing, and this course definitely delivered on both the writing and editing fronts. I won’t give away all the secrets I learned there, but here are a few I’m applying to my first book, which I’m giving another polish before submitting it to the next publisher on my list.
1. Read your work aloud. Punctuation equals breath sounds: a comma, a dash, or a colon is a half-stop; a semi-colon or a period is a full stop. Listen to where you stop, pause, inhale – it shouldn’t be in the middle of a sentence clause. If something sounds awkward or is hard to say, revise. If a sentence runs on too long and there’s no place to take a breath, revise. If you end up twisting your tongue around some witty bit of alliteration, revise. If you can’t read it smoothly… you know the drill.
2. Let the noun or the verb shine. Let them have the impact they deserve. With adjectives and adverbs, less is more. Cut out as many of the ‘-ly’s’ and long strings of descriptors as you can. Those that remain should contribute to the meaning of the sentence, not act as a literary form of whip cream. As Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in Four Weddings and a Funeral might say: “Nobody wants to look like a meringue.” That includes your sentences.
3. When writing/editing dialogue, put as few ‘Soandso said’s’ as possible. If there are only two people having the conversation, you don’t need any. If there are multiple characters, try to minimize them by beginning or ending your paragraph with a descriptive sentence. Here’s an example from my own novel, Like Stars. Beatrice is trying to console Wesley by feeding him pie.
It was some time before Beatrice felt him squeeze in return.
“Has the tea gone cold?”
“I imagine so.”
“Mmm.” Wesley pursed his lips. “Raspberry?”
“No custard.” He opened his far hand to receive his plate, perched it on his lap, then accepted a fork. At no time did he move to break her hold on him. He dug into the pie with more vigor than she had expected, which led her to wonder when he had last eaten. She suspected it was breakfast. After scarfing down three forkfuls in quick succession, he broke for air. “Tart. Lovely.”
“It’s all Mrs. Rutland’s doing.” She could not help but smile.
“Nonsense.” He scraped up the last streaks of jelly and crumb. When he finally looked at her, it was with the feigned innocence of a child begging another biscuit from its mother. “Are you not…?”
“I’ve had my fill for today.” They traded plates.
Would the above dialogue be improved by putting ‘Wesley asked’ after the first comment? Or ‘Beatrice replied’ after the second? By joining the fragments ‘No custard.’ and ‘Tart. Lovely.’ to a descriptive paragraph about Wesley, it is obvious that he’s the one speaking. Ditto the dialogue that goes with ‘She could not help but smile.’ Throughout this entire, three-page exchange, there is not one ‘said’ or ‘asked’, and yet it’s clear to the reader who is speaking at all times.
If two characters are arguing, you could dispense with the descriptive sentences altogether. It depends on what kind of mood you want to create. Using short, to-the-point lines is called stichomythia, a term from Greek drama meaning: “a technique in verse drama in which single alternating lines, or half-lines, or occasionally pairs of alternating lines, are given to alternating characters” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stichomythia). It works just as well in a novel or a short story.
The point of all this is, of course, to get rid of what Mr. Thomas Kane, author of The Oxford Guide to Writing (1983) calls ‘deadwood’, or “words that don’t contribute in any way to a writer’s purpose” (OGTW, p.272). The above are three examples of deadwood; there are many others! All help you to follow Somerset Maugham’s dictum, and my writing mantra: “Lucidity. Simplicity. Euphony.”
Or to put it another way: chop, chop, chop!