Keep Your Language Straightforward

I’m reading a non-fiction book on William Tyndale, an early advocate for an English translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek; in fact, his own translation serves as the basis for the King James Bible. It’s a topic that interests me. But I groaned and winced through the first few chapters. In fact, the only reason I’m sticking with it is that a friend loaned me the book with his recommendation.

So what’s my problem? The writer, clearly in awe of Tyndale, seems unable to leave out adjectives. Here’s the first sentence:

In God’s panoramic vision of the history of the earth, some significant events have been singled out for seers’ eyes to preview and prophetic pens to record.

Uh, I thought I was reading a history book. And it goes on. Here’s another:

The world proved much more vast than the sea-weary mariners fathomed. Their advancing footsteps, quickly washed smooth by the rising tides, foreshadowed the conquest and civilizing of two continents. The host land for the rolling back of the Apostacy’s centuries-old dark curtain loomed out of the ocean waves, a new haven for the old world’s captive spirits.

Oh my goodness! Just how flowery (or florid) can language get? And the hidden pun (mariners fathomed)—I wonder if the writer caught it himself. There’s a word to describe such language: cloying.

Now I admit the author finally gets to some meat. And I’m glad I stuck with it because I’m learning things I didn’t know. But I tell you, it was like wading through a swamp to get there.

So how might I have started? How about with Tyndale himself?

William Tyndale was an unlikely man to throw the establishment of his time into turmoil.

Ok, so I gave into an adjective: “unlikely.” But the fact is he was an odd man. A recent article in the Economist describes him as possibly a bit autistic. His social behavior was certainly not such as to win friends in high places. This behavior is described in the book, but not explained or interpreted.

What’s all this got to do with novel writing? Simple: Keep it simple. Direct. Not like this:

My languid eyes floated over the dreamy, carefree horizon, taking in the the regular, white-capped waves that whispered to me from unknown wild windstorms across the hazy, indistinct seas. Surely, I carefully thought after extensive and thorough reflection, perhaps my ultimate fate lay far beyond the sun-drenched sandy beaches, crashing across my nimble mind like wood nymphs on speed.

Well, actually I like the “wood nymphs on speed.” Nice imagery. I use it in Book 3 of the Flying Broomstick series. But you get the idea. Perhaps something more like this?

Momentarily unsettled, I looked down at the sea, about 300 yards to the east. Waves crashed on the rocks, but only whispers reached me. I wondered what lay beyond the surf. Tomorrow I’d know; my ship was to set sail at 10:00 a.m. I pulled myself back to the present and resumed packing.

So what’s the difference? The complete absence of adjectives and only one adverb. The words convey the same message. The scene is set through verb use: crashed, wondered, know, sail.

What’s my point? Review your draft and cross off all the adjectives and adverbs. Try to avoid adjectives entirely; you may have to reinsert a judicious adverb here and there. Let the scene be flowery if you must, but create it in the reader’s mind through simile and metaphor. Or a sound. A smell. Keep the words straightforward.

William Tyndale is interesting enough without embellishment. Let history speak for itself. Help me understand the setting. Show me the people Tyndale knew. Don’t tell me why events are significant; weave them together toward a conclusion.

Alas. There must be other Tyndale biographies. Perhaps I’ll find one that treats the man even-handedly.

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