Monday, 25 August 2014

Style Before Grammar

Sometimes, when editing or redrafting my work I come across writing that makes me cringe. This blog post is really nothing but a rant at my own shoddiness when trying to get my thoughts down on paper before I lose them. Any sentence removed from its context will feel a little odd, but sometimes they are just plain awful.

“She heard the sound of a car engine as it pulled into the driveway.”

Terrible sentence. Grammatically, it is not committing too big a crime. The meaning is clear and unambiguous. So what is wrong with it? Put simply, it contains unnecessary words and one of the few rules of writing you will hear that actually holds true is “eliminate unnecessary words”.

So which words are unnecessary?

Well, the fact that she can hear the car engine means that it is producing a sound. That is what hearing is. If you can hear it – it is a sound. Trust me on this. You will not hear anything else in your entire life apart from sounds. Therefore, since a sound is the only thing that can be heard, we do not really need to be told that it is a sound that is being heard.

“She heard a car engine as it pulled into the driveway.”

Better, but it can still be cut down. Do we really need to know that it is the engine producing the noise? Sure, cars produce many sounds, but one is hardly like to come skidding into the driveway or have the horn blaring as it parks up. No, I think that it is safe to assume that if we are talking about people hearing the sound of cars, they are referring to the noise of the engine.

“She heard a car as it pulled into the driveway.”

Still awkward. How about:

“She heard a car pull into the driveway.”

Should we go on? Do we need to know about the driveway or can that also be assumed? Given that the whole point of the line was that the character is interrupted by an unexpected arrival at her home, the driveway part is necessary. Cars pass by the house all of the time. We do not need to know every time that happens. It is also worth bearing in mind that this is only the second draft I am working on. A few more passes down the line and this could well become “a car parked up outside” so probably best not dwell on it too much. Within context - it works (for now).

The above example is just one of far too many to list. Some prominent instances of unnecessary words to look out for are:

“She shrugged her shoulders”

What else would she shrug? A shrug is basically just an upward movement of the shoulders used to indicate that one does not have the answer. It is always best to simply write “she shrugged”. It carries EXACTLY the same meaning, but with half the word count leaving the reader with more time to do other things. Trust me; they will thank you for it.

“He shouted loudly”

How else would he shout – in a whisper? I cannot shout loudly enough about how a character should never ‘shout loudly’! Did you see what I did there? It is all about the context and not arbitrary rules. All you need in this instance is “he shouted”

“The audience clapped their hands”

Well, I am glad we cleared up it was the hands being used. I thought it was the feet. Seriously, if this was in a print book and the publisher ran off 50,000 copies, they would be wasting enough ink to fill an entire novel. Just write “the audience clapped” or “the audience applauded”, either is fine so long as you do not bring anatomy into it.

There are more. Many more, but I think you get the gist. To list them all would just be unnecessary and that is something we could all do without.
The lesson to be learned is not to get too hung up on what is ‘grammatically correct’. Approaching writing (or worse still – editing) from a purely grammatical viewpoint will only lead to clunky, stiff prose. When it comes to writing fiction - style and context are the key to writing stories that flow and leave the reader in no doubt as to what is going on. Efficiency is just as important as accuracy. Everything that can be cut, shuld be cut. If writers were trapeze artists, grammar would be their safety net – not their act.