Writers on Being "Wordy"

Janet Litherland

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There is folly in creating beautiful sentences that don’t have much meaning, at least not to an unsuspecting reader. George Orwell cautioned, “Never use a long word where a short word will do. " Our job, as writers, is to entertain or inform our readers, not “teach" them. Most folks, when reading about “the mellifluous melody wafting from the violin, " don’t know—without rushing to the dictionary—whether the violinist is caressing the air with sweetness or assaulting it with an ear-splitting screech. Most readers will not take time to look up words, certainly not a lot of words, within an article or book. They will simply pass over those words, guessing at meanings; or, in frustration, they’ll toss the material into the nearest wastebasket.

Examples: Mendacity, when insincerity will do. Multifarious, which should be replaced with diverse. Concatenation is more easily a series of things. Even the slightly more familiar conundrum is merely a riddle. A word often used these days is hubris. Don’t want to look it up? It means, simply, arrogance.

In addition to the length of words, we can learn much from great writers, past and present, regarding the use of too many words:

  • William Strunk, Jr. , co-author with E. B. White of The Elements of Style—“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. "
  • Mark Twain—“When you catch adjectives, kill most of them; then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart. "
  • William Zinsser—“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. "
  • Cervantes—“Let every man … not set down at random, higgle-de-piggledy, whatever comes into his noddle. " In Cervantes’ day, noddle referred to the head. Still does, but now we spell/pronounce it noodle. As writers we must filter, through the sieve of good sense, the wealth of words contained in our noddles!

    Janet Litherland is the author of the novels, Vanished, Chain of Deception, and Discovery In Time, as well as 10 nonfiction books, several collections of music/drama-related scripts, and numerous articles and stories for national publications. As former associate editor of Florida Hotel & Motel Journal, she contributed 78 feature articles to that magazine. She also has taught college extension courses in creative writing and has served as a seminar leader for writers’ conferences.

    For more information, please visit http://www.janetlitherland.com

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