Less Is (Often) More

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, I was much involved in local theater, as stage manager, actor, reviewer, PR person, playwright, and all-around flunky. In the years since I’ve drawn heavily on that experience as both writer and editor. Here’s an example, brought to mind by something another editor was wrestling with.

My colleague was editing a novel in which a 20-something character texted to another character a acronym-laden message that my colleague found incomprehensible. She’s not an avid texter, so she asked an online editors’ forum for feedback. Would the acronyms be readily understood by text-savvy readers?

The answer was a nearly unanimous no. Even the avid texters had trouble figuring it out. It didn’t sound like a plausible text either.

What to do, what to do?

One possibility was that the 20-something character was being intentionally obscure. This, however, didn’t seem to be the case. There was general agreement that translating the acronyms into plain English was out of the question. Footnotes are fine in a scholarly work but not so fine in a novel, and working the translation into the text was going to look contrived no matter how gracefully it was done.

Aside: Something like 20 percent of War and Peace is in French. There’s a point to this. Tolstoy is showing us how the French-speaking Russian aristocracy is estranged from the Russian-speaking rest of the country, at a time when the French-speaking Napoleon is threatening Moscow. In the original Russian, Tolstoy provided translations in the footnotes. Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky kept the French (and a smattering of German) in their translation and provided English translations in the footnotes. It worked. I loved it. But I know for a fact that I am not Tolstoy, and you probably aren’t either.

This brought to mind something I learned as an amateur actor who occasionally had to speak with a foreign accent or in an English dialect not my own. My teacher was the late Dr. Louise Gurren, a retired professor of linguistics who’d been an avid theater buff all her life. She was the language consultant on almost every production I worked on, and many more besides.

When we actors went to her to learn to speak southern or English or Russian or Australian, her method went like this: First she’d teach the accent as authentically as possible. Once we had that down, she’d point out that if we spoke that way, the audience would have a hard time understanding what we were saying. So she’d then teach us to “back off” enough so that we sounded authentic but were still comprehensible to a general audience.

Travvy picture

Any excuse for a Travvy picture, right? Travvy loves to jump. Note the retrieve object in his mouth. He’s working hard!

Excruciating accuracy is a must if you’re conducting an experiment or reporting a news story, but on the stage and in fiction it can get in the way.

I suggested to my colleague that a similar approach might serve her client well: In text messages, use enough acronyms and emoticons to sound authentic but not so many that readers are left scratching their heads.

This might apply as well to the research and technical know-how you bring to your story. In my novel in progress, I’m drawing on what I’ve learned training my dog, but I’m not writing a dog-training manual. My goal is to sound like I know what I’m talking about without boring my readers — especially the less dog-obsessed among them — to tears with esoterica that isn’t important to the story.

Less is (often) more. Thank you again, Dr. Gurren.

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2 thoughts on “Less Is (Often) More

  1. It’s too bad Brad Pitt didn’t know about this when he starred in “Seven Years in Tibet.” His fake accent ruined the whole movie. It would have been better if he’d sounded like Brad Pitt instead.

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    • Quite a few theatrical productions have been ruined by “southern” accents that sounded like bad caricatures. Louise was an amazing woman. I went to her 95th birthday party. She died a couple of years after that.

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