Suspend Your Disbelief

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Under the Influence… of prepositions?!


Before submitting stories to workshop in graduate school, I spent hours combing my sentences for inefficiencies. I scrutinized verbs. I wrenched clauses from passive construction. I asked myself some hard questions about adjectives. My classmates often called my writing “clean,” which pleased me. I aspired toward concision.

One term workshop was led by an intimidating man largely considered a genius among the graduate students. He introduced us to Chekhov and eviscerated stories with uncanny precision. When my turn came, I was nervous—with good reason. The week my story was up, he sent an email asking everyone to bring three pages of recent work. In class he asked whether we knew what prepositions were, then explained anyway: they showed relationships, often in location. He gave examples: up, down, left, right, in, out, over, across, to, of, with. “There are a million of them,” he said, “and half the time they don’t do anything.”

We were to swap pages, circle every preposition, and scrap as many as possible. Often they could go with impunity, he said. Often strings of three—in front of—could be whittled to one, or none. Sometimes you had to rephrase.

Waikiki Beach Shimmer

I knew what had triggered this. My workshop story was set in Waikiki, and because the place was so well known, I had taken great pains to put everything in its proper location. Prepositions clogged my sentences.

Consider, for example, this monstrosity:

Clark walks out the front of the lobby, down the steps, and takes a left on the sidewalk along Kapahulu.

Without prepositions, it becomes:

Clark exits the lobby, leaps the steps, and takes Kapahulu.

And twenty words become ten without losing any meaning. In fact, the sentence gains information because of its new verb. Clark’s leap shows his attitude, and it conveys how few steps front the lobby. It’s so much better that it makes the first clause unnecessary:

Clark leaps the lobby steps, takes Kapahulu.

And twenty words become seven.

I had never examined prepositions like this. It made workshop painful that day, but my writing improved immediately. I’d just had my first story accepted for publication, and that evening I circled its prepositions and removed more than eight hundred words, cutting sixteen pages to fourteen.

The practice is ingrained now. Fewer prepositions appear in my first drafts, and they’re easier to recognize in revision. I don’t have to circle them anymore, but for a long time I did, and I recommend it. It can be tedious. Prepositions aren’t the sexiest words, but that’s just the point—strip them away, and let the sexy words drive your sentences.

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