Three Ways to Pare Down Your Prose


When my son was three, he felt that there was no work of art that could not be improved by MORE STICKERS, MORE COLORS, and MORE GLITTER. Because who doesn’t like colorful and sparkly? Thing is, you and I both know that a little glitter is good, but a pile of glitter glopped on top of half a bottle of Elmer's glue . . . not so much.

In a desperate attempt to get students to write with any flair at all, many language arts teachers push what's easiest for kids to understand: lots of adjectives, adverbs, and thesaurus usage--the puffy stickers, sparkle markers, and glitter shakers of writing. As kids, we were rewarded for modifier and thesaurus abuse because at least we were using adjectives. We were told that this was good writing, when in fact it was just more writing. More glitter. And we can learn all the fancy writing techniques in the world, but if the bones of the writing--the sentences--are hidden under piles of puffy adverbs and sparkly synonyms, anything we do will only make things more . . . more.

So without further ado, three ways to scrape off the excess so you can see the shape of the sentences underneath, and help them become what they really want to be.

1. Adjectives and adverbs: Less is more.

Everyone I know was taught in elementary school to use lots of adjectives and adverbs in “descriptive writing.” It’s counterintuitive—and difficult—to shake our dependence on these so-called “describing words.” But it’s essential because they’re nearly always too much. If you use the right nouns and verbs, you won’t need as many adjectives.

It’s the difference between entering a room and seeing this cat:

Sleeping lazily in the warm, bright morning sun was a cat with soft gold and brown striped fur.

And this one:

            A tabby cat basked in the morning sun.

2. Verbs and Nouns: Say exactly—and only—what you mean.

The thesaurus is not a tool to vary-ify your vocabulary (yes, I made that word up). It is a tool to refine it.  For example, chortle, giggle, guffaw, and snicker are not interchangeable. They have very specific meanings and should be used in very specific contexts. (And often, laugh will do just fine.) Also, try not to use an adverb with a powerful verb; guffawing loudly is redundant. So is chortling softly.

Same with nouns. If your characters are escaping pirates in a dinghy, don’t call it a yacht, a schooner, or a skiff. If saying “dinghy” twelve times in twenty sentences feels repetitive (hint: it is), maybe you don't need some of those sentences.

3. Unless you are a certified master, go easy on the metaphors.

As a person who draws hearts in the margins every time I come across a lovely metaphor, it pains me to say this. But sometimes it’s necessary. Especially if the metaphor is old and worn out. Let it retire (metaphorically) and spend the rest of its metaphorical days sipping metaphorical lemonade on its metaphorical front porch.

No metaphor at all is better than a bad one. I mean. Does Jane Austen tell us that Mr. Darcy’s eyes are the color of a sparrow’s wing (or tree bark, or a well-cooked steak)? No. I’m not even sure she tells us they’re brown.

I do love a good metaphor, though. Great metaphors can (help) make a book shine. Stay tuned for metaphor madness, coming soon.  Well. Soonish.

When your book gets called out for being problematic, Part II

When someone angrily calls my book out (and let me just admit here that I’m terrified of that day), I will of course indicate my desire to listen and learn. I will vent, and then calm down. I will address my accuser respectfully, remembering that her anger is quite likely rooted in pain and a desire to protect others.

Next, I will assure my accuser that I meant no harm. I will offer a reasoned, calm defense of my perspective, my motivations, and my characters and plot so that she can understand the underlying message of the book. I will remind her that I’ve tried to do everything right—research, interviews, sensitivity readers. When I reach for my laptop or phone to do this, dangle a Twix bar in front of me, then toss it a few feet away. While I scamper off to retrieve and eat it, grab my laptop and phone and hide them. Hide them well. Don’t give them back until I understand these very important steps:

Step 3: Resist the temptation to explain your book. It’s natural to want to defend your poor little book and its characters, into which you’ve poured so much love and effort. As a sensitivity reader, I’ve even had POC writers do this after I send them my comments: I did that because I wanted to show…; That’s just his personality; My Asian friend said it was okay. In fact, I had these very same thoughts when my sensitivity reader gave me her very gentle suggestions on the Latina characters in my book. I may even have expressed them. I can see how urgent it must feel to explain things to a critic who obviously missed my point or they wouldn't be so furious. If only they understood what I really meant, I'd think, they'd see that we're on the same side.

But here’s the thing. When you explain that your book isn’t really racist, what you are really doing is dismissing the validity of your critic's reaction. You’re saying, in effect, “You shouldn’t feel offended; if you'll let me explain, you'll see how wrong your feelings are.” It doesn’t matter how pure your intentions may have been, or how hard you worked to avoid stereotypes, or how complex and layered the plot is. The reader takes away only what is on the page, not what was in your head when you put it there. And if what is on the page is offensive to the reader, you can’t argue with that. You can’t tell people how to feel, especially when you have no understanding of why they feel the way they do (see Step 2). You must respect their experience of your book—and instead of thinking, “But how could I be expected to know?” maybe try for, “I should probably educate myself about this issue.”

If that’s not enough to convince you, then maybe this will: If you defend your book, you will go—in the eyes of already-upset people of color—from Probably Nice But Clueless Person Who Wrote a Problematic Book to . . . Racist Person Who Dismissed Valid POC Criticism And Defended Her Racist Book.

Yep. Just sayin’. It's ugly, but it's true.

Oh. An addendum to Step 3: Leave your sensitivity readers out of it. You’d think it would help to let people know that there are people of color who read and liked your book and didn’t find it problematic, right? Sorry, but no. Your sensitivity readers are not responsible for giving you POC street cred. Here’s why:

One reader cannot stand in for an entire population of people. I mean, yes, that’s kind of their job. But their experiences are individual. And so are their critique styles. Some Asian readers don’t mind the Asian Tiger Mom stereotype; others are tired of it. Some readers may straight-up tell you, “Do not let this go to press until you change X, Y, and Z;” others may say, “This stopped me, and here’s why. Can you think of ways to change it?”

Once the suggestions have been made, it’s out of the sensitivity readers’ hands. You as a writer might take the advice, or you might not. That’s your right—it’s your book, after all. But since the reader won’t know which revisions you’ve made or how you’ve made them, you MAY NOT imply that they gave you their stamp of approval when all they gave you was advice, and probably polite advice, too, because they don’t want to antagonize you. 

Step 4: Apologize…the right way. There are plenty of websites that explain how to write a proper apology, so I won’t go into a whole lot of detail about all the parts, but here’s a short list tailored to our particular situation:

  • Take full responsibility. Don’t shift the blame to your editor, don’t hide behind your sensitivity readers. At the end of the day, you are the one who wrote the book. Own it.

  • Acknowledge the pain you’ve caused. Maybe you still don’t find your book offensive (hopefully you’re trying to figuring it out), but surely you can step out of your own perspective and see it from another person’s point of view. Do that.

  • NEVER say, “I apologize if you were offended.” This may feel to you like you’re gently reminding people that you meant no harm. What it sounds like to others is that you’re downplaying the harm.

  • Go ahead and say that you never meant to hurt anyone. But only say it once, maybe twice at the most. The more you say it, the more it sounds like an excuse. Also, don’t talk about how awful you feel that people have been hurt. Don’t go on about how truly nice and not-racist you are, and how your friends all think so, too, and how heartbroken you feel that people might now mistakenly think that you are racist. Don’t, for the love of Pete, bring up your POC best friend/significant other/sorority sister. I get it. I’ve wanted to do all of these things, because I want to be liked and understood. That way, people will see that I’m a human being, too, I think. They won’t be as angry at me for screwing up. All that good stuff about you (and me) may be true. But if you've written something offensive, the real, hard truth is that no one cares how you feel, how nice you are, or if you are loved by a person of color. No one wants to hear about you and your poor feelings. People are hurt and angry, and they only want to hear that you know you screwed up and that you’re sorry. Because that’s the point of an apology.

  • Offer to make amends. If you are a well-intentioned as you say you are, do the writerly thing: show, don't tell. See if you can delay publication and do a revision. Or if your book is already out there, maybe revise for the paperback, à la Julie Murphy. Donate money or volunteer for a cause chosen by the people your book has offended.

There’s probably lots of stuff I’ve left out. I’m just kind of flying by the seat of my pants, here, trying to remember everything I’ve heard and learned over the past year. Feel free to let me know what I’ve missed.

Also, Check out Part III of this series (2 years late): Do NOT release the hounds! Or: What to do when your book gets called out and your friends want to defend you.

When your book gets called out for being problematic, Part I

First, a caveat: I’m not an expert. I’m a newbie to the writing community, and I’ve spent the last year making mistakes and trying to learn from them. I’ve been doing a lot of listening and digging, and much of what I say here has been said by others, elsewhere. I'm focusing on race here, but this applies to all marginalizations. So with that in mind, ahem:

A while back, I wrote a guest post on the Publishing Crawl blog about things you can do when you write about people and cultures beyond your personal experience. But I’ve been finding over the past few months that many people seem not to know what to do after they’ve written the thing. That is, what to do When (not if, I guarantee you) Your Book Gets Called Out for Being Problematic. (read: racist.) So here’s my take. 

Step 1: Vent. Then Calm. Down. Cry, tear your hair, curse, throw something—do whatever you need to do. Then take a beat. Pet your dog. Breathe and wait for your heart to slow down. Contact a loved one--maybe outside the book industry--and vent about how the person who critiqued your book misunderstood it, is hypersensitive, quoting out of context, spoiling for a fight, and/or mean. Let them tell you that you did your very best to be respectful, that you’re a good person, that of course you’re not racist. Because most likely (from my perspective, anyway) you’re not, at least not intentionally. Most people don’t go out and purposely write a racist book. Duh.

(In the meantime, consider posting a quick note to the public, something very simple, like, "I am listening and taking everything in." This will buy you calming-down time and also let people know that you're not ignoring the issue.)

Your feelings are totally understandable and totally allowed. No matter how gentle the criticism, it can sting to be called out, especially when you had good intentions. And let’s be honest—sometimes the calling out isn’t so gentle. Sometimes it’s downright nuclear. Sometimes—despite what folks say about criticizing the work and not criticizing the author—it does get personal. So, yes. It makes sense that you feel wounded, and I’ll even grant you the possibility that you and your book have been misunderstood and unjustly crucified. But you need to express your hurt and anger in private because a) you could be wrong and b) wrong or right, going public with your hurt and angry reaction is unprofessional and counterproductive, especially if c) you don’t understand where the criticism came from. Which brings me to the next step.

Step 2: Try for empathy. I am chronically conflict-avoidant, so no matter how rage-inducing I find something, I rarely get more confrontational in public than “This makes me uncomfortable.” Others, however, will have no problem saying, “This is fucked up. You need to fix this shit.”

So, yeah. If someone said that to me about my book, I would take it as a personal attack. My heart would start racing, I’d feel sick to my stomach, and I’d curl up under my covers with my cats, my family, and my Netflix queue, and ask my friends to bring me soup and ice cream sundaes. Because in my mind, swear words are fighting words. They’re vicious weapons when used in a public forum. I get why people might see those words as bullying.

But here’s the thing.

People of color don’t call out racism for kicks. As difficult as it may be for you to do, try to get past the words and look at the feeling underneath. For a lot of people of color, anger about racist portrayals comes from pain. It comes from years of being misrepresented or underrepresented, of being excluded, ridiculed, demonized, caricatured—and being ignored and dismissed whenever they stick their necks out to say something about it. Perhaps “This is fucked up” is not an attack, but a cry of frustration and outrage that reflect years (not to mention cultural histories that span centuries) of pain and oppression.

It’s quite possible that you’ve heard all of this before (I know I’ve seen it plenty of times), and you're still perplexed. So here’s a different way. Try this thought experiment:

If you’re white, imagine growing up in a country full of, and run by, people of color. Whites comprise only three to fifteen percent of the population. How does that feel?

Now imagine that whites have a history of being invaded, enslaved, and brutally, systemically discriminated against by these people of color. Imagine that growing up, literally every child of color you know sings songs that make fun of your whiteness; that even as an adult your European features are the subject of daily scrutiny and ridicule; that nearly all of the white people you’ve ever seen on television, in books, and in movies are caricatures, villains, sexpots, exotic foreigners, criminals, or some combination thereof; that you are often the only white person in a crowd of people of color, and if one of them says something that disparages whites and you say, “Uh, that’s not so cool,” you are told to calm down because no one meant any harm. This is part of the fabric of your life.

How do you feel now?

Now imagine reading a book by a POC author whose characters look, act, and sound like ugly POC stereotypes of white people; they remind you of all the times you and white people you know have been ridiculed, demonized, exotified, sexualized, excluded, and dismissed. What do you do? How do you feel?

Is that anger starting to make a little sense?

A caveat: If you’re Asian, you may feel (rightly) that you understand what it feels like to be oppressed, exotified, othered, sexualized, demonized, and dismissed. But please remember that many of us (especially East Asians) come from positions of privilege, and our own cultures of origin are often highly racist and colorist. We may understand what it feels like to be the object of racist attitudes, but we are often perpetrators of racism as well, however unintentional.

I’ll admit—I'm on the fence about things like using profanity in a public excoriation of a book. I’m definitely a tone police officer. You catch more flies with sugar, and all of that. But just because I’ve never expressed my anger loudly doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it. And just because someone else expresses it bluntly doesn’t mean that they’re exaggerating, or not thoughtful, or bullies. It’s foolish and willfully obtuse to dismiss fierce critiques of racism as mere bullying and posturing. That ferocity comes from somewhere real, and it’s worth listening to.

3) This post is already too long, so I'll be back tomorrow with Part II: Actions to Take After Venting and Empathizing (hint: it's not what you want to do). And Part III after that: How to Support a Friend Whose Book Has Been Called Out, etc. Don't do anything rash while you're waiting. Breathe. Stretch. Empathize. Then check back here tomorrow.

Not to equate the difficulties POCs experience in publishing with the oppression of the Black community in American society, but Tupac has a great take on the evolving attitudes of long-oppressed communities: