Hey now, don’t blame us!
Let me begin by saying that I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment Alexander McCall Smith puts forward in his Wall Street Journal piece today. Overwriting drives me nuts, and it’s something I actively discourage in my composition, literature and creative writing classes. I even break out a study by Daniel M. Oppenheimer titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” * for my students every semester in hopes that they’ll stop overwriting. (It’s a fascinating study, by the way, and I’ve discovered that my students respond more to that than they do to my constant notes.)
I don’t think creative writing classes are what’s causing this problem with overwriting, though. I say this because most of the overwriting I see comes from people who’ve never taken a creative writing class. Overwriting generally stems, I think, from insecurity. It’s a natural reaction to concern over criticism of one’s ideas. It’s ass-covering, a way to hide rhetorical weakness beneath a padding of fluffy language. And it provides a ready-made response to critics in the form of “well, I guess my language is just too complex for your mediocre minds to comprehend. Nyaah.”
But I can understand why Smith would point at creative writing classes. He’s probably responding to the kind of writing B R Myers called “the cult of the sentence,”, and if he is, then I’m with him. Not that I dislike long, complex sentences in general–I love reading Faulkner, for example–but when I read fiction, I’m not reading primarily for sentences. I’m reading for story. If long, complex sentences further the story, then great. If long, complex sentences seem to be there to make me marvel at their length and complexity and beauty, then I’m not wowed by them. How can I tell the difference? I can’t, really. It’s a matter of personal perception. I just know that I get lost in Faulkner and get tired in Cormac McCarthy.
I’m not a fiction writer, and I read remarkably little contemporary fiction for someone in my position–truth is I don’t have time for it. I read a lot of poetry and I don’t even keep up with that. So maybe Smith has a point about overwriting, that it can be traced back to creative writing classes. I have my doubts, if only because overwriting is so common outside the world of literature. Or maybe we’re talking about two different kinds of overwriting. I’ve gotten a bit tangled up here, I have to admit. Not concise. Not good.
* If I could ban a single word from the English language, I’d be very tempted to get rid of “utilize.” I’m sure there are cases where utilize is more appropriate than use, but I haven’t seen them. It’s a pet peeve of mine.