Verbose: adjective. Using or expressed in more words than are needed. “Much academic language is obscure and verbose.: synonym: wordy, loquacious, garrulous, talkative, voluble.

I’ve been told I write tight, but my critique partners and editors can usually find ways to tighten my writing. Often I’ve read books (some being bestsellers) where I wished an editor had cut out half the words. It’s easy to get carried away with a description, and I sometimes think literary writers are afraid they’ll be drummed out of that classification if they don’t throw in lyrical passages that demonstrate their eloquent command of verbose and loquacious verbal skills.

Yep, that’s a bit of verbosity.

What I’m trying to say is take a look at what you’ve written. Can it be said in fewer words without losing its meaning or impact?

Here’s something I recently wrote:

One by one, they carried the boxes that listed their contents as books—or merchandise Mary had saved from the bookstore—up the stairs and set them on the living room carpet until only a half-dozen boxes remained.

The person critiquing this chapter made the following change:

One by one, they carried the boxes marked “books” up the stairs and set them on the living room carpet until only a half-dozen remained.

As you can see, her change shortens the sentence. Now, if the merchandise in some of those boxes was important to my story, I would keep the original (or something similar), but the merchandise is NOT important to my story, so I went with the revised sentence.

When eliminating words, look for redundancies:

He woke that morning at 5 a.m.

He woke at 5 a.m. (Obviously it would be morning.)

He sat down on the bed.

He sat on the bed.

When describing a room, clothing, a scene, or action consider what is truly important to your story and/or to the character. Also consider the genre. Besides literary novels, a certain amount of verbosity is desired and expected in historical novels where the reader wants more than a cut and dry description. A reader wants a sense of the times. The same may be true of science fiction or thrillers such as the ones Tom Clancy wrote, where a detailed description of a weapon or piece of equipment might be necessary for the reader’s understanding.

The opposite is true of objects or operations that most people would be familiar with. If your character is getting up, bathing, getting dressed, having breakfast, and leaving for work, unless something unusual or key to the plot of your story occurs during that time, it’s really not necessary to go into detail. To describe each step would be boring to the reader. One short sentence should get your character on her way.

Purple Prose is one form of being verbose. Sadly the term is often used to describe romance writing in general. Where you’ll commonly find it is during love scenes where the writer uses euphemisms to describe the act of making love. This is where the writer must walk a tight line; too much and it can become ridiculous, too little and it’s a cut-and-dry how-to lesson.

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The question each writer must answer when editing is: Have I been too verbose?

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16 Responses to Verbosity

  1. Great article. I am always going back to delete words. Tighter is always better.

  2. Maris,

    Both THE BAD WIFE and THE INHERITANCE were cut by approximately one-third by the editors. I found it painful. However, readers comment on the fast pace which they enjoy. So I suppose tightening in a necessity and so is sharp editing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, I once had to cut 20 pages from a book that had already been edited. (Publisher cut back on page count due to cost.) At first I didn’t think I could do it, but ultimately I succeeded. What was disheartening was to discover how much I could cut and not hurt the story.

  3. Ah, yes, Maris. The painful sound of cutting words. I know it well. I’ve just finished reading EAT CROW AND DIE (review to follow shortly) and found the pace of your writing perfect. I enjoyed every word.

  4. Good post, and good reminder for all of us. I find myself trimming sentences in the third draft, trying to make each scene sharper and faster-paced. It’s a good exercise, and makes me look at the ms more closely.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Susan, you’re so right. The point where we think the story is ready to go out in public, is when we need to give a close look at every word and sentence and decide if it’s really necessary.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    When I was in college, the teachers would say I needed to write so many pages, so I often found myself waxing verbose. Now as a fiction writer, I work on my writing by using a limited number of words (flash fiction) which allows me to deepen the word choice. Both are great exercises to help with writing!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Melissa, I remember thinking those assigned writing exercises were sooo long. I’m sure I did the same as you…added as many adjectives and adverbs as I could.

  6. Great post, Maris. I have a list of words to try to cut, or at least reduce in my writing. But you make some very good points – I will have to add them to my list!

    • Maris Soule says:

      HiDee, I like your idea of actually having a list of words. I search for certain words when doing final edits, but I don’t always remember every word I should look for. A list taped close to my computer would help.

  7. Sandy says:

    Aw, heck, verbosity and I are best friends. Going through my manuscript now and deleting. I know I should do a whole lot more. Sigh.

  8. Bonnie Alkema says:

    When I was teaching, I threatened to charge $50 for each unnecessary word. Cash, check,or credit card accepted. Placing a monetary value on a word seemed to help, even if I was joking.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Great idea, Bonnie. In a way publishers have the same attitude. This is why some publishers place limits on the word length they’ll accept. Unless the writer is well known, it’s too expensive to print a wordy book they’re not sure will sell.