Prose is Poetry Too
There are a lot of people trying to be successful writers. There are a lot of online articles offering advice on how to be a successful writer. And some of these articles offer advice on how to write well. In essence, they attempt to define what constitutes good writing.
And what do these articles tell us about how we should write? Many of them share a common theme. Be definite, direct and efficient, they tell us. Use common words. Keep sentences and descriptions short. Cut down on the adjectives. Cut out the adverbs.
Put even more succinctly: Many words are unnecessary. Be ruthless. Get rid of them.
There is little doubt this advice proves helpful in some cases. Some writers are too wordy. Some articles are flabby and meandering. And so I do appreciate it when writers are clear and concise.
I think it’s a great shame, however, when editors reject or butcher good work merely because it didn’t follow the conventions this advice seeks to uphold. And many writers butcher their own work to keep editors happy.
…if an extra word fails to change the meaning of a sentence, but improves its rhythm or flow, I say stick with it.
There are no universally applicable standards for determining how good writing must be constructed. It is fruitless to attempt to formulate such standards and foolish to inflexibly enforce them. Whenever we try to do so, we find that some great writing clearly breaks these rules. Yet it remains great writing, so the fault must lie with the rules.
I have an additional concern, however, about excessive ‘efficiency’ in writing:
Rhythm and flow matter.
When you add supposedly unnecessary words to a sentence, you may or may not be enhancing its meaning, but you sure as hell can be changing its rhythm and its flow. And I happen to think that rhythm and flow are very important.
I suspect that the over-zealous application of ‘word efficiency’ standards stems from a mindset that unhelpfully sees prose and poetry as separate and highly distinct art forms.
..sadly, some editors simply have a tin ear for poetry.
Admittedly, some dictionaries (but not all) do specifically define prose and poetry as two distinct forms of literature. I think it’s probably better, however, to think of prose as its own form of poetry. It’s still supposed to have rhythms and a flow. You just have to produce those rhythms and that flow within the rules of grammar: within the restriction of using properly formatted sentences.
Yes, sometimes a word — perhaps an adverb — isn’t necessary for conveying meaning. But sometimes you need that extra word to get the rhythm and flow right. So, if an extra word fails to change the meaning of a sentence, but improves its rhythm or flow, I say stick with it.
I’m sure many people don’t care about flow as much as I do. I suppose it is partly a matter of personal preference. When I read, I sound out the words in my head. Consequently, I like the words to flow, as if spoken by an eloquent speaker.
Some people don’t read this way. They may be more visually-orientated. They may be in a hurry. They don’t sound out each word in their heads, as I do. So they may not care about flow so much, or even at all. But that doesn’t mean they should ruin things for those of us who do. Whether they are editors, critics or just readers, they shouldn’t push writers to discard the so-called ‘unnecessary’ words upon which the flow of their sentences depends.
As a writer, your ‘voice’ is a critical part of who you are.
Good writing should never be defined as something that conforms to an inflexible set of style rules. It’s not a construction project. It’s art.
But there’s something even more important.
A writer needs a voice.
As a writer, your rhythm and your flow are key parts of what gives you your distinctive ‘voice.’ You have a personal style, a way of phrasing things, a signature. And your ‘inefficiencies’ are part of your ‘voice’ and part of what humanises your writing.
Sadly, some publications are excessively inflexible with their style guides. They scrape away the individuality from their writers’ voices, thus making all content sound like it’s written by the same, rather dull, person.
And, sadly, some editors simply have a tin ear for poetry.
Yes, it may be possible to write more efficiently, more neatly — but at what cost? As a writer, your ‘voice’ is a critical part of who you are. Don’t edit it out of existence. Nurture it. Cherish it. Be proud of it. It’s very important.