As a reader, I wholeheartedly believe that less is more. I don’t mean that description should be sparse. Instead, a writer should give us just enough. And frankly, I think it’s a difficult balance to achieve. For instance, repetition signifies importance, but at the same time, it can also suggest a small vocabulary. Description can transport the reader into another world, but it can also come across as too flowery. Long sentences can create a beautiful rhythm , but they can also become disjointed and confusing.
I recently read Olivia Twist by Lorie Langdon, a book that managed to encompass all three of these problems within the first page. If you haven’t heard of it, this is a “sequel” to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist wherein we learn that Oliver was never actually a boy.
Langdon begins her novel with this: “For long minutes, there was considerable doubt as to whether the child would survive to bear a name at all.” Then literally a few lines down, she writes, ““Extended moments passed as the babe lay on a thin, flocked mattress, struggling to find that first, essential, life-giving breath while the parish surgeon warmed his hands by the meager fire and the nurse slipped into a dark corner to find fortifications within a tiny green bottle” (1).
There were three problems I had with these passages:
- The repetitive nature of the language and ideas.
- The overuse of adjectives.
- The poor use of complex sentence structure.
Within a few lines, Langdon addresses the “long minutes” and “extended moments” that passed a surgeon and nurse waited for a baby to take its first breath. Essentially, it felt like Langdon noticed that she was repeating a phrase, referenced a thesaurus, and changed the second to “extended moments”. Not only are both phrases incredibly awkward and specific, but she’s also expressing the same information. Instead of showing how agonizing these “long minutes” might have been, Langdon pulls attention to her word choice.
In addition, the author is too reliant on adjectives. Don’t get me wrong. I love descriptive writing when it’s done well, but this example isn’t done well. Instead, I notice Langdon’s use of adjectives. There’s a “thin, flocked mattress”, the “first, essential, life-giving breath”, the “meager fire”, a “dark corner”, and a “tiny green bottle”. To me, this is purple prose. It’s too much in a short amount of time. In other words, it’s cheesy.
Finally, the second sentence consists of two ideas that don’t mesh well. I think this stems from the author’s attempt to mimic Dickens’ writing style. After all, he was known for his long-winded sentences. But the difference between Dickens and Langdon is that Dickens was able to use this technique to impact the pacing and the mood of his writing whereas Langdon could not. Yes, while the baby is struggling to take her first breath, the nurse and surgeon are doing other things. However, these two ideas are awkwardly presented in one sentence. Using “while” to transition between the two felt artificial. And if I’m being completely honest, something about it just rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t quite place it.
In the end, writing should be creative and complex, but at the same time, it should be clean and well-thought out. Anyway, I know that this post was more of a rant, if anything. But let me know your thoughts in the comments below: Do you agree? Do you have similar or different pet peeves? Run into something similar? Seriously, I’m curious. 🙂