Tuesday, February 13, 2007

E-Prime and Writing Tight

I've seen a few discussions on various forums about the technique of writing in E-Prime. I must confess, I'd never heard of it until a couple of days ago. It sounded like the name of a planet! (Says the blonde who's not really blonde.) For everyone who's not a linguist or a sci-fi geek, E-Prime is actually a method of writing which removes all the forms of "to be". It's harder than it looks, given the many forms that "to be" can take. It also recommends against using contractions, but I don't think modern dialog sounds right without them. So how can one tighten prose while keeping that "real life" flavor and not starting to sound like Commander Data?

When I finish a manuscript--I think I've mentioned this before--I go through and try to remove as many instances of "ing", "ly", "and", "as" and "was" as possible. Over the past couple of years, I've almost broken myself of the frequent use of "ly" adverbs, so I almost don't have to check for them anymore. When I do have an "ly" lapse, it usually occurs in a cluster; I'm not sure why. I don't remove every "ly,", just enough so they're not used in excess. I'm also down to a minimal use of "ing" verbs as well. I do notice that when I take out "ing" words, I tend to reform the sentence into a compound one, which often requires the use of "and." And it really bothers me when I see "and" peppered over my page, and I feel compelled to remove as many of them as possible, which often results in a few of my "ing's" being added back into the mix. It's just like a good recipe. Too much or too little of one type of spice and you spoil the soup, so it makes sense to taste as you go along.

Bottom line: I'm picky about polish. I go through and highlight all the offending words so I can see how thickly they're scattered onto my page. Each pass nixes at least a few of the offenders so that by the time I'm done, I've removed at least a third to half of them. With any luck, I've left the ones that really help the prose flow the right way. I don't use E-Prime to such an extent that there are no "to be" verbs left in my...ah...verbiage. E-Prime might make some writing easier to read, but it can also change the original meaning of a sentence. There's a time for more active verbs, but there's also a time to simply ignore the rules and just...be. It's the writer's job to know when to do what.

For anyone looking for a good instructional book on how to tighten up your writing, I can recommend William Brohaugh's "Write Tight". Sadly, it's out of print, but you can probably still get a used copy through Amazon's marketplace. With such tough markets out there, I can't imagine why any writer--aspiring or otherwise--might not want to clean up her prose and give a manuscript just that much more of an edge. It's not about perfection (which I doubt exists anyway), but it is about being thorough, professional, concise, fast-paced and reader-friendly.


Bill Brohaugh said...

Kathy, thank you for the kind and humbling comments about Write Tight. I know the author well because, um, well, I'm the author.

Write Tight is not out of print (ISI Books is the current publisher), though availability seems a mite scarce at the moment.

Good news: Especially because of your enthusiasm for the book, I'm excited to announce (and yes, this is, to the best of my knowledge, the first place it's been annnounced) that Write Tight will be coming out in paperback soon--schedule at the moment is fall 2007.

Good luck in your writing, and thanks again for your kind nod to Write Tight.

--Bill Brohaugh (contact me at bill@UnfortunateEnglish.com -- Unfortunate English is my latest book)

KHurley said...

Hi! Wow. I'm always shocked at how easily the internet introduces people who might not be able to meet otherwise. I'm glad you happened to notice my blog. The paperback version of "Write Tight" is great news; thanks for sharing it here! And thanks for the encouragement also.