Why Use Two Nails When One Would Do?

PenandInk

copy{writer} fiction & publishing

Two years ago, I had the extraordinary good fortune to have Richard Russo read an early manuscript of the book that eventually became Heart of Palm. Though at the time I’d never met him, we share the same agent, and she asked him to look at it.

I was, and remain, astounded at his generosity. He read the entire manuscript and then provided not only words of praise and encouragement that I’ll forever treasure, but also notes on opportunities for improvement. And believe me, when a writer of Mr. Russo’s stature offers advice, I sit up straight and pay close attention.

He said one thing in particular that stayed with me. I think of it every time I sit down to write. He pointed out, through patient line edits, places in the manuscript where I “overwrote.” He explained: “… it’s mostly the same thing over and over, the carpenter using two nails where one, struck sharply, will do.”

He gave me some examples:

  • In the prologue, when Arla is waterskiing, I originally made reference to “the south shore of the lake” when it was already clear the characters were on the lake. Why not take out “of the lake”? Russo asked. (Done.)
  • Later, after I’d already made clear that Dean and Arla had just begun their honeymoon, I wrote: “They stayed inside for two days after the wedding.” Why not cut “after the wedding”? Russo asked. (Done again.)

The lesson here, of course, is that I was using two (or sometimes three or four) nails when one, struck sharply, would do. I realize now the tendency to overwrite was a habit*, and it stemmed from a lack of confidence in my own voice. I tended to surround my characters and their actions in gauzy cushions made up of prepositional phrases, unnecessary adverbs and redundant clauses because I wasn’t confident enough in my writing to speak simply and authoritatively. (*Now right here is a perfect example. On the first draft of this post, up where the asterisk is, I wrote “…a habitual thing that I’d developed.” See how overwritten that is? What else is a habitual thing but a habit? And how else do you come by a habit other than to develop it? I revised that phrase from six words to two, and the sentence has more authority.)

There’s an old story about two guys in New York City trying to get a light of their cigarettes. The first guy tries to stop passers-by on the street, and he says to each person, “Excuse me, if you would not mind, I was wondering if I could ask you to light my cigarette?” He says this over and over, but all the pedestrians keep moving and won’t stop to engage with him.

The second guy walks up to the first pedestrian he sees and says, “Got a light?” He gets his cigarette lit on the first try and walks away satisfied.

In real life, nobody has time for redundancy. Nobody has time for padded phrasings or over-involved language, and this is true for fiction, as well. Readers want information. We want to know what the character will do or say next, and we want to know how his or her story will help us understand our own lives. This is not to say there is no place for artistry of language, of course. The pleasure of wordplay is one of the reasons we turn to books in the first place. But artistry does not require complexity or impenetrability. It’s easy to be hard. It’s much harder to be easy.

Thank you, Mr. Russo. You pointed out a habit I continue to fight against, but at least now I know it’s there, and why. Here’s my takeaway: Speak clearly. Speak simply. But say something worth hearing.

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