On Writing: Word Economy

There’s an old saw among writers that writing is easy, it’s getting all the words in the right order that is the hard part. While it’s funny, it’s also true.

There are many stories that are very flat, telling you pretty much what happened, in order, without really digging into the heads of the characters. Those stories can read more as a newspaper article or police report than an actual creative piece of literature.

Many of these tales fell victim to the dreaded “tell not show” method of writing, instead of the preferred but not always perfect “show not tell” method. And you’re likely to lose a reader, or at least not fully pull them into the story, when this happens.

Then there are stories on the other end of the spectrum, ones where it seems like the writer is trying to hard to impress their massive vocabulary upon the reader. Those pieces can lead to a phrase most writers hope never labels their work: purple prose. Using a word such as “lugubrious” when something such as “mournful” or even “sad” would work, although the latter might be too weak, will often lead to what I call “speedbumps” in reading.

If a word pulls the reader from the story, you’ve done the opposite of what you should intend. And if it happens often enough, the reader loses interest, and this leads to another dreaded label for writers: DNF. Did Not Finish.

A quick web search found a good page talking about purple prose here, and one example is dead-on:

“Her voluminous follicles cascaded down her blushing epidermis of the neck, catching his desirous eye.”


“The way her hair hung across her bare neck caught his eye.”

Do they both get the point across? Absolutely. Which would you prefer? I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the latter any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

So where’s the answer? As with many things, it’s somewhere in the gray area in the middle. Or, as I often tell my martial arts students, especially when working self-defense, “It depends.”

I really enjoy short and even micro-fiction. If you want extreme micro-fiction, there are Twitter games where you have to tell a ten-word story. Now that might be too extreme for many folks, but it’s always a challenge, and sometimes that’s the point.

There is also the popular #vss365, standing for Very Short Story, story game on Twitter where you take the word of the day and have to write a Tweet-length story, consisting of only 280 characters these days. I definitely love the challenge of that and try to participate as often as possible. Here are a couple #vss365 stories of mine that got the biggest response either in likes, comments, or private messages.

This one was spawned by My Beautiful Bride, who lost her daughter Amanda at only 12 years old. We had just gotten married, and Amanda’s birthday was approaching. I can only imagine the pain a parent goes through losing their child, and even though I see it secondhand, I will never full understand it. My son Zak almost died multiple times while in the NICU, but he’s still here at 27 years old. So this story was me delving into the “what-if” of having your child die in your arms.

When we talk word economy here, you definitely don’t have room for extravagant words. You need to use words that elicit the desired response, and you need to do it in as few characters as possible. And for those who know me, yes, I love twists at the end, which this one definitely has. It’s sweet and adorable until the last two words. But it generated many comments and several private messages, including from people who’d lost a child, talking about how dead-on it hit them emotionally.

This tweet probably generated more private messages than any other I’ve posted, and I can certainly see why. It harkens back to the day, especially in the Deep South, when a lynching was indeed a big social event. While we as a society have improved since then, we still have a long way to go. But still, this definitely got people’s attention.

What I got from interactions with others was that they could absolutely picture this in their heads, which is what you want as a writer. Some were offended, some where shocked, others we saddened. And some even called me a racist, even though I wasn’t glorifying or condoning it. But in all fairness, you can’t explain a political position well while still telling a full story. Or at least not in 280 characters. 🙂

And, much like the other tweet, this one took a hard curve with the last eight words. Yes, I do really love twists and ambiguous endings. Sorry, that’s just me. 🙂

So how can you tell the best way to write? The short answer is to read, read, read. If it sounds and feels right to you, it’s probably the better way to write. If not, that’s something to avoid.

Another great way is to incorporate alpha and beta readers before your work is published. If you can get a core group of readers who will be honest with you, no matter what, they can be worth their collective weight in gold. Let them tell you what does and doesn’t feel right with a story. And from there you will know if you need to beef it up or trim the fat.

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