Happy to welcome Margaret McNellis to the blog today. She’s tried an interesting experiment with her writing to create stronger, tighter prose, so please read on!
When I was a Masters of Arts student studying English and Creative Writing, one of the biggest issues I had with my writing is that my peers told me that while I chose beautiful words, there were simply too many of them. Not knowing which words to cut, I simply chalked it up to that they must have been unaccustomed to reading historical fiction. I needed those words to world-build.
Fast-forward two years to my first MFA residency week. I was exciting about the piece I’d submitted—a short story that fits into the historical mystery subgenre. My descriptions were nothing short of poetic. At the time, I thought that’s what literary fiction was. I thought if my descriptions jumped off the page like a poem, then I’d hit the mark. The main problem with this approach was that I was wrong.
(For the record, literary fiction is fiction that’s driven by character development; while plot is important, it’s not the propelling force of the work.)
Understanding where my definition of literary fiction was lacking helped me get closer to fixing my painfully poetic prose. Yes, literary fiction can often move at a slower pace. One way to slow the pace of a story is to describe more, to expand the exposition…but I was losing readers’ interest in the process, and therefore failing as a storyteller.
It wasn’t until I received my first feedback letter from my mentor that my solution began to gel in my mind. She’d addressed the first paragraph of my thesis, which began with this sentence:
“I slid numb-legged from the saddle, sinking knee-deep into snow, and settled one gloved hand against my horse’s neck; his withers jumped and trembled, though my hand was too cold to feel the bunching muscle.”
Re-reading this sentence now makes me gag because it’s littered with adjectives and adverbs that make me stumble toward the period, which acts like a piece of cheese for a mouse in a maze. That’s how I feel at the end of this sentence, grateful that I survived it and famished for the effort it took.
I was trying to show the reader that my protagonist was cold, that it was winter, and that this horse is nervous but possesses vitality. All my mentor did was suggest that there were too many adjectives and adverbs in my first paragraph—and throughout the first chapter—and that I should work on cutting back.
I couldn’t decide which adjectives and adverbs to cut, so I decided to take a risk, and I cut all of them.
Using the sentence above, my next draft read like this:
“I slid from the saddle, sinking into the snow. His withers jumped and his muscles bunched under my hand.”
This revision is much more compact. The world is cold—cold enough for deep snow. The horse still reacts to my protagonist’s dismount, and I’ve conveyed the animal’s strength. I also ended up splitting the sentence in two because I thought about the way people tend to breathe in the cold. They don’t take deep breaths, because the air is cold. By shortening my sentences, I evoked that feeling without having to say it.
I expected that removing all the adjectives and adverbs from my text would tighten my writing, but I didn’t think about how it would make it more active and exciting. By removing these modifiers, I had to think more about what my protagonist was doing, what his horse was doing, and how my protagonist felt.
By allowing myself to focus on those considerations, throughout the story I found better opportunities to develop Barnaby the horse as a character, instead of just an object to show off my protagonist’s connection to horses and the inauspicious start to his present mission.
Does this mean we should cut all modifiers? No. Using adjectives that provide a strong impact is fine. In my case, I found that in order to determine which ones were important, and fit my style as a writer, I had to dump them all first. I admit I felt a bit ashamed for letting my writing get so bogged down—especially with adverbs. I knew better!
But the lesson remains the same. Sometimes you have to take the risk and strip your writing to its bones, like taking a house down to studs, before you can build it back up again.
Do you use too many modifiers? What technique have you used to pare back? Let us know in the comments!
Margaret McNellis is an MFA student, teaching assistant, author, and freelance writer/editor.