In the Silver Age of Roman literature, Latin stylists migrated from the stark austerity of Etruscan-influenced Latin to a more lush, wordy, indirect style later known as copia verborum — “plenty of words.” The newer style borrowed heavily from Greek and redirected the precision of early Latin into a linguistic approach much more open to ambiguity and far more tolerant of circumlocution.
In English, we’re also seeing a style migration, from the languid hyperformality of the 18th century, to the complexification of sentence structure and word usage in the 19th century, to the 20th-century Strunk-and-White mode of using shorter sentences with more common words. These trends have mostly been fueled by the increasing accessibility of reading material, the democratization of publishing, the interplay of English as a second or third tongue, and changes in pedagogy.
No active language ever freezes; all languages evolve organically. Contemporary English, being heavily influenced by urban vernacular and smaller effective vocabularies, conforms increasingly to “English as a Second Language” patterns and usages, even among primary English speakers.
Today’s authors pick from any of several writing styles, but not all styles are equally suited for every possible application. A style marked by colloquial slang doesn’t work for textbooks, for example. In the universe of fiction writing, certain styles seem natural — particularly to younger authors who were taught to write like that — yet aren’t well-suited to storytelling.
The single biggest challenge with contemporary fiction, assuming the prose is otherwise clean, is verbosity: Using “plenty of words” when a few choice alternatives would suffice, or relying on strings of prepositional phrases or subordinate clauses in lieu of a single rarer word or a shorter phrase.
Consider the following eight examples:
1. It is important to be able to type at least 65 words per minute to be eligible for applying for this job.
Better as: “Job applicants must type at least 65 words per minute.” Flabby writing includes an awful lot of infinitive phrases (to plus a verb) and passive constructions.
2. She had in her possession a pearl necklace, and occasionally when she was having stress, she would hold the pearls in an absent-minded fashion.
Better as: “She possessed a pearl necklace, which she clutched absently when she felt stress.” Or even: “”She absently clutched her pearl necklace when she felt stress.” Over-reliance on to have as a main verb leads to unnecessary sentence bloat.
3. Her hair, which was dyed a peroxide blonde, glowed in the moonlight.
Better as: “Her peroxide-blonde hair glowed in the moonlight.” Many dependent clauses distill to a single adjective.
4. The boy’s success is a function of his love of reading.
Better as: “The boy succeeded because of his love of reading.” Watch for nominalization — using a verb form as a noun, then using a weak identity verb (like a form of to be) to paste the sentence together … awkwardly.
5. The general demanded actual facts before he would consider alternative choices that would trigger modifications to his advance plans.
Better as: “The general demanded facts before he would consider alternatives to his plans.” Every time a writer pens a redundancy, an angel loses its wings. Watch for bloated expressions that are common enough to slip by self-edits, but nevertheless say the same thing twice.
6. The prime minister was assassinated by Russian separatists by means of being pushed out of a window.
Better as: “Russian separatists defenestrated the prime minister.” Sometimes, using a 50-cent word correctly proves superior to litanies of simple words that, cumulatively, lose their punch.
7. Grandmama pulled her old blue patchwork-covered shawl, with fringes on the side, over her shoulders.
Better as: “Grandmama pulled her shawl — the old one, with blue patches and a fringe — over her shoulders.” Reduce ambiguity with appropriate set-offs. Litanies of adjectives, separated by commas, confuse the reader. You’ll often find that segregating descriptive content leads to trimming opportunities.
8. The storm was fierce and the grain silo was knocked down by its awesome power.
Better as: “The powerful storm toppled the grain silo.” Passive-voice constructions always present more words than active-voice constructions, and the use of all those extra words leads to redundant pairings of adjectives.
Great stories proceed without tripping the reader with awkward, slow or flabby turns of phrase. Think of your writing as a game: What’s the ratio of syllables to concepts in a given passage, and how can you employ your editor’s pen to improve that ratio over time?