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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Too many adjectives, adverbs, and subsidiary clauses are the death of good writing

Alexander McCall Smith has a pet peeve: Overwriting.

The author of more than 60 books, including the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, McCall Smith wrote in a column in The Wall Street Journal that for "some people... the temptation to overindulge is just too great". The result, he says, is the use of too many adjectives, adverbs, and subsidiary clauses. 

He continues:

Such writing then begins to sound contrived. Nobody uses large numbers of adjectives when they think, and I believe that writing which one cannot actually think can very easily look wrong on the page.

The real aim, of course, is conciseness. Concise prose knows what it wants to say, and says it. It does not embellish, except occasionally, and then for dramatic effect.

Now consider this quote by George Orwell, who was also, rightly, obsessed with conciseness in writing:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

And here's William Strunk, Jr., of Strunk & White fame, expressing himself firmly on the same subject:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

'Nuff said?