“He laced his clown shoes and shuffled bow-legged through the crowd of mourners.” Writing Tips for Engaging the Reader

JerzWriting > [CreativeGrammar and Syntax ]

If you’re desperate to make a word count, long phrases like “at this point in time” may seem more attractive than “now.” But if you want to write convincing prose, prefer brevity.

Why Eliminate Redundancy?

Clumps of related words (such as “red in color” or “unhappy and miserable”) and vague, wordy phrases such as “make a recommendation” will boost your word count, but they are less effective than a smaller number of well-chosen words.

Imagine two documents that both make exactly the same point. Document A is 300 words long, and document B is 100 words long. Which would you say is the better document?

If you can revise to make a point in just 1/3 the words, in the real world you can save your reader time. For a school assignment, your instructor will expect you to put the same space to better use — going into greater depth, increasing the amount of evidence you provide, adding an opposing view, etc. (See: My Academic Paper is Too Short! Top 5 Tips.)

Replacing Wordy Passages with Specific Details

Don’t just “make a recommendation about what to select from the restaurant menu” when you can “recommend the rib special,” and don’t “bring about reduced regulation and more freedoms for a subset of the population” when you can “liberate.” (See: Nominalization: Don’t Overuse Abstract Nouns.)

The same principle applies to sentences.

Bad ExampleIt was cold. He was really miserable as the icy blasts stung his face. He looked up at the winter sky, and his face changed into a scowl. “I hate this weather,’ he said, pulling his coat tighter.
Boring. The action of pulling his coat tighter shows that the character is cold, so we don’t need to be told “It was cold.” If we knew that the coat was somehow important  (there’s a microchip sewn into the lining, it has sentimental value, it’s covered in somebody’s blood) then perhaps it would be worth a mention. But if this is a story about sailing, perhaps the icy wind is important; or maybe it’s the sky that’s important, or his exposed face. Who knows?

 

Good ExampleScowling at the cloudless sky, he laced up his clown shoes and shuffled bow-legged through the crowd of mourners.
Which story would you rather read?

Let’s work our way from the boring first example to a more concise, but more engaging revision. Authors of fiction can invent crazy details, but authors of nonfiction must instead look for unexpected connections or creative ways of looking at the facts.

Our original example didn’t deliver anything close to the punch we saw from the clown-shoe example. Let’s cut the deadwood.

It was miserably cold. He was really miserable as the icy blasts stung his face. He looked up at the winter sky, and his face changed into a scowled. “I hate this weather,’ he said, pulling his coat tighter.

That leaves us with:

It was miserably cold. He looked up at the winter sky, and scowled. “I hate this weather.”

Okay, this revision reduces some wordiness. I’m imagining that there is nothing particularly important about the wind or the or the character’s exposed face, so I’ve simplified — “winter sky” tells us all we need to know about the setting. But now the line, “I hate this weather” is pretty dry — it tells us nothing that we haven’t already learned by having the character simply scowl at the winter sky.

Furthermore, the action of scowling conveys dissatisfaction and disdain, so “It was miserably cold” and “I hate this [winter] weather” are also pointless.

It was miserably cold. He looked up at the winter sky, and scowled. “I hate this weather.”

That leaves us with:

He looked up at the winter sky, and scowled.

At just nine words, we’ve trimmed a lot of deadwood. But we can trim that a bit more:

He looked up scowled at the winter sky, and scowled.

He scowled at the winter sky.

We can cut the remaining six words even more:

He scowled at the winter sky, shivering.

He scowled, shivering.

Those three words contain all that really mattered in the original thirty-eight-word passage. Although it’s still pretty boring, the fact that we’ve trimmed out the redundancy means that we have lots of space to add specific details that will help us make our point about why this sentence matters — more facts, another example, a discussion of why the character is facing the cold on this particular day, etc.

Adding Specific Details

If you are eliminating redundancy in academic writing, trimming the deadwood means you have more room to explore an opposing view, to introduce another case study, etc. In creative writing, you can fill the space with invented details.

Rather than just throwing in any old details, or adding in the vivid adjectives that your high school English teacher praised you for using, choose details that will achieve a particular effect.

If I am writing a war story, I might use details like this:

Shivering and scowling, he laced up his boots and tightened his flak jacket, his eyes searching Blotovsky’s face for any new trace of fear.

I never labeled the setting or tone of the above passages but the boots, the flak jacket, and the Russian-sounding name all suggest a military or thriller theme. If I were to choose different details, again without actually stating the setting or theme, those details would give the careful reader clues as to what is going on. For instance:

Shivering and scowling, he tried to scrape some of the mud from his dress shoes and concentrated on ignoring what the valedictorian was saying.

The above passage suggests an outdoor graduation; the principal character is wearing dress shoes, so he is probably graduating; he’s not bored, because he’s working hard to avoid listening to the valedictorian; he seems to be scowling because he’s standing in the mud, and not up on stage giving the speech.

With still different details, the same opening can lead off into a completely different direction. Consider:

Shivering and scowling, he laced up his clown shoes and shuffled bow-legged through the crowd of mourners.

While the first version wasted words by TELLING the reader (over and over) that the person is cold and miserable, these three revisions demonstrate how it’s possible to fill that space with specific details in order to make a particular point.  We don’t need to be TOLD that the first example is set on a battlefield, that the second is set at a graduation, and the third is set at a cemetery — the significant details imply the setting, which gives the reader something to do — puzzling out the significance of the acton of scowling.

For the clown example, we don’t need to read “black-clad, somber mourners streaming into the cemetery gate.” The single word “mourners” already conjures up the image of a funeral. Come to think of it, the action of scowling at the cold is probably too normal for this example. Let’s see what we can do to intensify the effect of that sentence.

Shivering and Scowling at the flawlessly blue July sky, he laced up his clown shoes and shuffled bow-legged through the crowd of mourners.

There! This revision begins with “scowling” and ends with “mourners,” which go together fairly well, but the specific details in the middle make this sentence surprising (and therefore memorable).

Scowling at the cloudless sky, he laced up his clown shoes and shuffled bow-legged through the crowd of mourners.

We can do even better than that.

Scowling at the cloudless sky sunshine, he laced up his clown shoes and shuffled bow-legged through the crowd of mourners.

The single word “laced” is just as good as “laced up.”

Now that I think about it, “Scowling at the sunshine” is a bit much; it’s already a deliberate contrast that calls perhaps too much attention to itself, which detracts from the impact of someone wearing clown shoes to a funeral. Likewise, maybe “crowd of mourners” is better.

I confess it hurt too much to cut “bow-legged,” so it’s going back in.

Scowling at the cloudless sky, he laced up his clown shoes and shuffled bow-legged through the crowd of mourners.

After coming up with that opening line, I want to write the rest of the story to find out what happens.

25 Apr 2011 — first posted
19 Jan 2012 — tweaked final example
21 Dec 2017 — put “bow-legged” back in; other minor tweaks

5 thoughts on ““He laced his clown shoes and shuffled bow-legged through the crowd of mourners.” Writing Tips for Engaging the Reader

  1. Pingback: Writing Index — Jerz's Literacy Weblog

  2. Yur blog is my favorite. As a ninth grade English teacher, I have to sneak in the writing lessons because of a strict curriculum map and little flexibility. Students are measured through mandated testing. Alas, most teachers leave the writing out because it is just too hard to do it and “no one will ever know.” After all, if the scores are good, who cares? Well, I do, and your site is just what I need. Thanks for your help.

    • I teach a lot of first-years who are fresh out of high school, and I see the impact of teaching to the test. Thank you for taking it upon yourself to prepare them — even if they protest!

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