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    Entries in Clarity in Writing (3)


    An Awesome, Incredible, Nicely Worded, Fun, Smart Post

    So, let's talk about adjectives. I hope you know what an adjective is, but just to refresh your memory, they're descriptive words. For example, in the phrase "a red coat," red is an adjective.

    Adjectives provide valuable word pictures for your readers. Lately, however, I've run into a lot of books that have the problem of too many adjectives. Now don't get me wrong, adjectives can and should be used in writing. Writing would be odd, stilted, and boring without them. So how can you use too many? Let me demonstrate.

    The particular problem I'm addressing is when authors feel like they need to precisely describe everything about their characters in the very first sentence about them. Consider the following example:

    John threw his long, six-foot-two, 210-pound, karate-trained, brown-haired, blue-eyed, lanky, toned body in the path of the speeding, red, wide, noisy Ford.

    Can you see how this can be overkill? Authors, please resist the temptation to shove every bit of physical description about your characters into the first sentence you write about them. You can, and should, spread it out a bit. Important points you want to make about your character can get lost in a sea of description, and your writing can definitely be bogged down.

    And while we're on the subject of adjectives, I'll give you a quick rule of thumb to follow if you aren't sure whether to insert commas between adjectives. Basically, if you would say the word "and" between adjectives, you should insert a comma. For example, you would write "the fast, noisy car" but "the fast Ford truck."


    Serial Commas

    A much-debated issue in writing is whether to use a serial comma. The serial comma has been known by many names, including the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, and the series comma. If you’re wondering what exactly I mean by a serial comma, just look at the previous sentence. There are three items in a series (i.e., the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, and the series comma) in the sentence, and the serial comma is the comma that appears after “the Harvard comma.”  According to The Chicago Manual of Style, three or more items in a series (e.g., eggs, butter, and milk) should have a comma after the second to last item in the series.

    The serial comma is used to avoid confusion, as in the following sentence: “I like all kinds of ice cream flavors, like strawberry, coconut and chocolate chip and raspberry.” Without a serial comma, it’s unclear whether you are talking about coconut and chocolate chip ice cream or chocolate chip and raspberry ice cream. Adding a serial comma will never cause confusion, but omitting it might. In my opinion, a serial comma is an important tool for clarity in writing.

    There are some style guides that do not use the serial comma, most notably the Associated Press style guide. That is the guide used in writing for newspapers, where space is an issue. In book writing, however, the serial comma should almost always be used. I have personally never run into a publishing house that doesn’t use a serial comma, although I’m sure they exist. Also, the authority on writing for books is The Chicago Manual of Style, which calls for a serial comma.

    There is one notable exception, though, that often trips writers up. The serial comma should not be used when you use an ampersand (&). Ampersands usually should not be used in the text of a book but are often used in titles, ads, and other supporting materials. If you are called upon to use an ampersand, remember that a serial comma isn’t needed.


    Too Many Words

    This week, my life has been taken over by a massive, 400,000-word project. To give you an idea of how large this is in publishing terms, this is just a little bit smaller than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, which clocks in at 470,000 words.

    To get right to the point, this book is much, much longer than it should be. There are very few successful books that are this long, and for good reason. The project I'm working on this week suffers from many problems, one of which is frequent repetition of the same thing over and over and over again. The book could (and probably should) be about a quarter of the size and still have the same information. In writing, more is not always better.

    Depending on the genre you're writing in, anything much more than 100,000 words is probably too long. One exception to this rule is books written in the genres of fantasy or science fiction. Even there, there's no reason to be carried away. For example, the final Harry Potter book, which is considered by many to be too long, is 198,227 words. Part of the art of writing is learning economy of words. There's no need to write a tome when a pamphlet will suffice.

    If you think your writing is suffering from being too long, take an objective look at it. In fiction, are there scenes that don't serve to move your plot forward? Does your writing suffer from too much description of people, places, and things that aren't central to the plot? World-building is an important part of writing, but don't get so caught up in it that you forget to move your plot forward. In nonfiction and memoirs, watch out for repeated information or information that is not pertinent to the overall purpose of the book. Don't make the mistake of letting your message drown in a sea of too many words.

    Of course, probably the best way to eliminate some of the unnecessary words that bog your writing down is to get a development or content edit. A skilled editor can help your writing become more clear and concise.