Friday, September 10, 2010

Bad Seeds: Begin to (verb)

Consider the following:

It was dawn. Wordy-Bird began to fly to the window. She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

At first glance, it doesn’t really seem like anything is wrong, right? But there is an issue here, which I see in just about every manuscript I edit and sometimes in published books. It’s an issue of clunky writing, which can also become a big deal in manuscripts with blown-out word counts.

The offending phrase? Began to fly. Or its variations: began flying, started flying, started to fly.

Wordy Bird doesn’t just begin to fly to the window, she continues and finishes flying to the window, too, because in the next sentence she is there, looking out at the rising sun. So began to fly is not only unnecessarily wordy and unwieldy, it’s also lacks complete logic. Why not just write:

Wordy-Bird flew to the window.

Not only does that strengthen the sentence and complete the logic, but right there you’ve cut 28% of the words in that sentence. If this is a phrase that's consistently used in a manuscript—and when writers use began to (verb) it’s often very liberally—that can add up to a surprising number of excess and clunky words.

But consider the second sentence:

She looked out at the rising sun and started to sing.

In this context, started to sing works well. We don’t know what happens after she begins to sing, so it is suitable and actually adds weight to her act of singing to greet the dawn.  

As you become more aware of it, you’ll find that begin to (verb) and its variations rarely add more than excess words and an undesirable smattering of clunk. 

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