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Worrying your writing (Continuation)

Example Two: No-Man's Land

We'll worry our way through another student's poem, paying particular attention to the dangers of adjectives and adverbs. Here's the poem:

                         No-Man's Land

                         A forgotten swing rocks
                         silently sand mechanically.
                         Discarded bales of rotting hay
                         lies as ruins
                         along with the battered sign saying -
                            'Scotland Farm. No Trespass.'

                         There's a rust mangled tractor
                         surrounded by ragged barbed wires.
                         Where's that milk bottle crawling on its side
                         and the gnarled paper come from?
                         Solitary farm,
                         detached, fulfilled and existing: no-man's land.
                         Solitary farm, which wants no visitors.

Now, this author is quite sensitive to places, would you agree? However, with what we've learned so far, one could realise that this version is probably an early draft, in need of the following treatment:

1. 'forgotten' - Adjective, so caution is needed! Forgotten by whom? Does the author know for sure it's forgotten? It's possible...; we'll see.

2. 'rocks ... ' - This is not the right verb for the motion portrayed in the poem. 'Rocks' implies 'resting on a fulcrum' A swing implies suspension, therefore the correct verb is 'swings'. A swing swings! But this sounds wrong, due to the unpleasant repetition - which is why she tried to make do with 'rocks'. Wrong...

3. 'silently and mechanically' - Adverbs, so look out! To start with, silence and mechanical seem to be at odds, but a good imagination may just accept the combination of these words at a push. Secondly, the only mechanism ever to drive a swing is a person, but this particular swing seems to be moved by the wind, which ... is not mechanical. Pay attention to the meaning of your words.

4. 'Discarded... rotting... as ruins...' - all qualifiers describing the same thing more or less. It would be much better to find a more powerful way of expressing this idea without so much repetition.

5. 'along with.' - Well, this prepositional phrase combined with the 'battered sign' manages to rather confuse the reader, putting the image out of focus.

6. 'Saying...' - Again, precision in choosing the right verb: a person says; a sign 'sign'ifies!

7. 'rust mangled...' - No: rust does not mangle;

8. 'surrounded by ...' - A tractor and a wire: if there can be a more interesting relationship between these than the one expressed, it would be better...

9. 'ragged barbed wires.' - If you use the qualifier 'ragged', it actually blunts the barbed wire.

10. 'crawling on its side...' - Almost clear, but: is it actually moving, or is it crawling with insects or something?

11. 'Solitary...' - Adjective; a good one this time: Its double meaning and its own 'solitariness' give it a marvellous tang.

12. 'detatched, fulfilled and existing...' - Well, since the farm is solitary, it does also mean it is detatched, so this is a power sucking qualifier. Other than that... what exactly is meant by fulfilled and existing? Too fatuous unnecessarily.

13. 'no-man's land...' - This is good, for its two-edged meaning.

14. 'Solitary farm...' - Is it necessary to mention this again? Does repeating it add anything? On the contrary, the expression becomes blunt with use.

15. 'which wants no visitors.' - Well, it depends! It's good, if by 'wants' we mean 'lacks no visitors'. Very good, in fact. But if the author means 'it desires no visitors', then that would be bad, by committing what's called 'pathetic fallacy', in other words belittling this solitary farm by attributing to it the feelings of a mere human-being! Can one risk it?

Here's how we've worried this poem from 64 words to 36. We shall never know if it says what the writer wanted to say, or if it says as much as the original. One thing is certain - it is more precise, and therefore, in one sense, it is better written. Do you agree?

                         No-Man's Land

                         The swing
                         silently swinging.
                         Bales of hay in ruins.
                         A battered notice:
                         Scotland Farm. No Trespassers.
                         The tractor rusted
                         penned with barbed wire,
                         a milk bottle, crawling,
                         and gnarled paper.
                         Solitary farm -
                         vital no man's land.

Now, even that 'vital' - does it add anything, or just detract? You can worry it a few times more, until you can rest assured that you've got to the essence of the scene you wanted to express - that's the art of writing well.

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