Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writers: Are You Overdoing It?

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
~Ernest Hemingway

My only daughter got married two years ago, on a bluff overlooking Kachemak Bay. We pulled it off as intended: a beautiful, simple affair.

Make that deceptively simple. A year before the Big Day, my daughter traveled 1500 miles from Portland to deposit in my closet the first set of dishes lovingly scavenged for the reception, the perfect shade of green, more yellow than blue. That was only the beginning. What followed: dress, rings, music, officiant, photos, catering, cake, lodging, vows, seating, tents, heaters, rehearsal, plates, flatware, tables, coffee urns, welcome bags. One hundred twenty-five things to buy, rent, or borrow; 162 items to scratch off the to-do list. 

In writing it also takes effort to pull off the simple. A little exposure to the classics, a lot of textbook drivel, and we leave school with writing that’s pompous and overbearing. Re-training can take years. 

Overwriting is the caste mark of the emerging writer, worn unaware. “Diction problems are symptomatic of defects in the character or education of the writer,” John Gardner says. “Both diction shifts and the steady use of inappropriate diction suggest either deep-down bad taste or the awkwardness that comes of inexperience and timidity.” Ouch.

In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, agent Jessica Page Morrell calls it purple bling: writing that’s euphemistic, clichéd, and extravagant. “The problem with purple prose," she notes, "is that it calls attention to itself instead of performing its job – telling a story – and it tries too hard to manipulate the reader’s emotions.”

In The First Five Pages, agent Noah Lukeman echoes this concern. He identifies these warning signs of overwritten prose: writing that feels forced or exaggerated, not fitting the subject; books that come off as arenas for showing off the writer’s talent; and writing so noticeable it drives the reader away from the story.

Gardner identifies these signs of badly elevated diction: cliched personification (“greeted by the sound”), abstract language (“unique sound”), and Latinate where Anglo-Saxon will suffice (“surveyed the sound situation”).

Maybe once, long ago, you let a purple phrase or two slip. Examples, courtesy of Morrell:

  • In love scenes, quivering and throbbing; breasts as mounds or globes, couples locked in a primal dance
  • Storms featuring distant thunder and menacing clouds that crouch on the horizon, generating violent gusts of wind that frighten the shutters
  • Characters known to the core of their being or to every fiber of their being; characters who experience the slow burn of anger or who are touched to their innermost souls
Fortunately, there’s a cure. “By reading carefully and extensively,” Gardner says, “by writing constantly and getting the best criticism available to him, the writer who begins with no feeling for diction can eventually overcome his problems.”

Try This: As an antidote for purple prose, Lukeman recommends rewriting a passage in a style exactly the opposite of its original. “If your style is straightforward,” he says, “try one that is convoluted; if it is baroque, try one that is minimalist.”