Thursday, July 5, 2012

In Defense of Moderation - my guest blog for Jennifer Walker

Jennifer Walker has made the mistake of turning me loose on her blog ( That may be a little bit dangerous because I have a lot of strong opinions!

Today I’d like to use this soapbox to address the issue of moderation in writing. In fact, I’d like to argue in its defense. As a reviewer, I read dozens of books each month. Few things can numb a reader faster than overuse of any tool. From language to brutality to yelling in all caps in email, extensive repetition lessens the impact.

Writing, like science, can be a balancing act.

Remember Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” and the uproar over Rhett Butler’s final line? If Butler had been cursing throughout the book, his parting shot would have been weakened to triviality. Mitchell’s moderation made the line a devastating slap in Scarlett O’Hara’s face. In my opinion, she made the right decision.

Gore falls into the same situation. I recently finished Bob O’Connor’s Civil War novel “A House Divided Against Itself.” Much of the action takes place at Gettysburg-a bloody, gory day if there ever was one. O’Connor handles the event with great discretion. He focuses on a handful of characters and what happens to them. The reader can better absorb the horror on the personal level; his moderation allows the reader to feel throughout the book. 

SEX! That got your attention, didn’t it? Human beings engage in sexual behavior on a number of levels. Not all of those levels end up in tangled bodies. If every encounter your characters have ends up in bed, you’ve lost some sexual punch. Try thinking “sensual” as an alternative to “sexual.” Throwing in a bedroom scene every few pages doesn’t make up for a poor storyline. A little discretion about sex can change the impact the act delivers.

Ask yourself these questions about the language, violence and sex you’re putting in your story:
  1. Is this a natural progression for the character(s)?
  2. Does this advance the plot or slow it down?
  3. What else might I use in this situation?
  4. Is this appropriate for the audience I’m trying to reach?
Even descriptions can go overboard. If you’ve just spent three full pages describing a flower, your reader may have given up on the book unless you’re writing a botanical guide. Find a good editor or critique group to help you stay on track with your narrative. “Show, don’t tell” doesn’t equate to “Beat them over the head with it.”

As writers, we have freedom of self-expression. Some writers use that as an excuse for excess. The good news about freedom-that we have the freedom to moderate our own writing-gets lost in the discussion. I’m in favor of expressing. I’d just like to encourage you to get the most impact for your expression by using moderation.

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