I have been working with writers (and one talented editor) on eliminating extraneous information and superfluous descriptors. This is a lesson I teach and reteach often; a lesson that EVERY writer (including me) has to be reminded of all of the time.
The following is a one paragraph primer based off of that old cliche, "It was a dark and stormy night."
In the hours since the power failed, the ancestral manse was devoid of all light. The rain outside came steady, not pulsed in sheets or waves, but like a thousand gardeners with hose nozzles set to saturate, not to damage the tender blossoms of youth. The soft sound of heaven’s cascade proved a needed respite from the incessant torture on the disembodied voices screaming their cruel and inhuman orders. They wanted more from the wet, frightened girl who cowered between the mildewed sofa and dank floral wallpaper. He knew she was there, they had him bring her. She was the purpose for this night and he needed the occasional static flash of lightning to reassure the demons he had completed their first task. Adrenaline coursed through his blood in desperate anticipation. It would happen again. Yes, it was a dark and stormy night.
I know that many writers that showcase their work here on the Internet are self-taught and virtually innocent of scholarly tutelage, so I thought it might be a welcomed lesson to demonstrate how and why economy works in literature.
There are no superfluous words or extraneous ideas in my tiny primer.
...the ancestral manse was devoid of all light: Is this only the "dark" from the cliche? Look again. We now know that this is a familial abode with generations of history; the story now spans multiple years with a genesis buried in the inheritance of our protagonist. I used the word "manse" to imply that although the house is large, it is not the stereotypical Frankenstein's castle. This gives the reader an environment that can be handled in their imagination; it is an old home, but absent are the passe (often requisite) hidden doors, dungeons and secret passages. "...devoid of all light." Dark, right? Well, how can a house be devoid of ALL light? No ambient illumination implies relative isolation; no nearby streetlights, storefronts or traffic. Eight words -- more story.
The rain outside came steady, not pulsed in sheets or waves, but like a thousand gardeners with hose nozzles set to saturate, not to damage the tender blossoms of youth. Why not a raging driving storm? This is the kind of question every reader should be asking. Would the rage be reiterative of another yet undiscovered rage? Why did the writer use the simile of the gardeners? The answer, of course, is the portent of "tender blossoms of youth": a metaphoric foreshadowing.
The soft sound of heaven’s cascade proved a needed respite from the incessant torture on the disembodied voices screaming their cruel and inhuman orders. This is the first introduction to our main character. There is no name (yet); it is not needed. So many writers think that a character must be named and physically described before they can make entry into a story. If stature, cleanliness, clothing or incidental actions are not germane, why burden the reader? A skilled reader is looking for information they can use to piece the puzzle together. I don't want (at this point) my reader asking why the blue jeans are important, what the beard has to do with what is going to happen, or why the type and condition of his shirt is relevant. I want my reader to see the juxtaposition of "heaven" and "disembodied...inhuman...voices." That is the entire point of the word choices; we now have a conflict of good and evil.
They wanted more from the wet, frightened girl who cowered between the mildewed sofa and dank floral wallpaper. "They," the disembodied, wanted "more." What did they get so far? The frightened girl throws the reader back to the "tender blossoms of youth," dragged unwillingly in from the rain outside, with more foreshadowing from the "cruel...orders." But wait, why is the sofa mildewed and the wallpaper dank? We know from the initial sentence this is an inhabited place, why is it seemingly neglected? Is there more to our unnamed estate's squire or the potential of his ancestral relatives, living or dead. Obviously we can rule out climate control to hamper the humidity and the rains hint at the possible damp locale in which the house sits. Many writers would be tempted to go back to the start and paint a picture of a silhouetted structure overlooking a source of the dampness; an angry sea, a craggy cliff, a foreboding lake, or a flooded river, but that would draw the reader away from the victimised female and the possibly psychotic main character. It would undoubtedly help the writer see his story better, but the writer knows where his story is headed. To the reader, it would be extraneous distraction leading away from the purpose of the opening paragraph.
He knew she was there, they had him bring her. She was the purpose for this night and he needed the occasional static flash of lightning to reassure the demons he had completed their first task. We now know the MC is male. We know he is obedient to the demonic voices. The girl is no longer an implied victim, she is the purpose (of the story). But why do the demons need reassurance? There is a definitive implication of discipline, a consequence to the MC's inaction, an inherent aversion to threatened punishment. The voices are disembodied but capable of retribution.
Adrenaline coursed through his blood in desperate anticipation. It would happen again. "...desperate anticipation"? We now have actions in crisis. Our MC is acting against his judgment, a fallback to the good and evil revealed a few sentences back. The governing "voices" ordering the MC with a threat of punishment for failing to obey, yet he is desperate to act, but not desperate enough to defy (yet). "It would happen again." There is both a history and a concession that this event will recur.
Yes, it was a dark and stormy night. Obviously a reference to the cliche, but why "Yes"? What is the writer telling you? Is this an affirmation to the command of the demons? An affirmation of the dire situation of the young girl? Or an affirmation of some genetically inherited propensity destined to be play out again in a new generation?
Writing is not about vivid descriptions of everything and everyone in the entire world created for your story. Most of that world has no relevance to the crises, conflict and resolution you are employing. Tell your story while looking at that world through a single slat of a Venetian blind. Your whole story exists only in that sliver of your imaginary world; stay in that sliver. A seasoned or educated reader is going to glom onto unneeded facts trying to put the pieces of your puzzle together. It would be foolhardy to mix multiple jigsaw puzzles together and then hope your reader can sort through the pieces and build the picture you wanted. There is the possibility they could, but you will have one very fatigued reader at the end. Have you ever heard the expression "difficult to read"? That is because there were too many pieces that had nothing to do with the puzzle.
When I am writing, I let my cranial fluids flow. I pour the words out on paper without worry or discipline. When I reach a breaking point, the end of an elaborate scene, the conclusion of a chapter, or the denouement of a book, I return to the beginning an start paring away words, sentences, even entire paragraphs that are not needed and possibly distracting. When I finish that edit, I go back and begin editing again. This time I start looking for replicated words, idioms that do not fit the timbre of the story, the proper sophistication of word choices, novel construction of ideas (if you've read a descriptive phrase six times in your entire life, that means it's been used 6 million times, find different words!), and finally the continuity of color and emotion. That would bring me to the end, right? Nope. A good piece of writing needs about three more rewrites, edits and proofreadings. Then it's done. Nope! Find an educated reader/writer to proofread, make editorial suggestions, and critique it for all things literature. Then you edit one more time, and maybe, just maybe, it might be time to submit it to your coach, mentor, professor or even your blog site.
I could take the writings of anyone of you and redline the pollution, the extraneous, the superfluous, circle the thoughts and ideas that need further work, and suggest better word choices. And you know what, everyone of you could do that to my writing. But I write in my style and each of you write in your style. I can't tell you what to write, but writing does have (or should have) a structure and a method. There is a way to instruct on how to write. We all know the lessons: avoid the passive voice, be sure sentences have a complete parsable construction, use strong action verbs so you can steer clear of those annoying adverbs (especially anything ending in "Y"), open your story with suggestions that grab and keep the reader interested, create crises that lead to the main conflict, give the reader a workable and believable resolution, and serve them a tasty denouement that leaves them wanting more, either from your story or from your pen. And last, put your writing on a diet. Get rid of everything that does move your story along. Don't worry about the picture in your head, worry about the picture in the reader's head. They are perfectly capable of inferring the insignificant actions of your characters, but if you feel compelled to write them into every scene, know that they are no longer insignificant and need to be tied into the story or you will tire and confuse your reader.
So go read the last piece you wrote and pause after each sentence to ask yourself: What am I saying? Why am I saying it. If you cant answer those questions, your DELETE KEY is on the right of your keyboard.