Oliver Sacks on Writing (Why Use One Adjective When Six Could Apply?)

On the move

In On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks’s recently published memoir, we become better acquainted with the complicated human being whose popular case studies have given us insight into rare neurological conditions and whose commentary in the New York Times has both made us better appreciate the Periodic Table (not that I ever needed that kind of encouragement) and look forward to turning 80.

In The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), published on the cusp of his 80th birthday in July of 2013, he wrote:

“My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

Less than two years later, however, he received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has chosen to live out his days in the “richest, deepest, most productive way” he can, saying:

“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

I have thought about his joyful approach to aging and his determination to feel alive in the face of death quite often over the last few months as the mainstream media — and this blog — have been obsessed with another octogenarian, the mysterious Harper Lee. It’s hard to know how old age has affected her, but her lawyer’s attempts to ruin her legacy cast doubt on her competence (particularly when the lawyer acts as though she’s representing an estate rather than a living, breathing person).

But I digress, a tendency that I apparently share with Dr. Sacks.

In On the Move, he describes his penchant for “tangential thoughts” and his love of adjectives:

“… I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing… often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive.”

When it comes to “sentences of paragraphic length,” Dr. Sacks reminds me of my other half, Mr. AMB, who in real-life is a far more prolific and accomplished writer than I am. I am often the person who slashes adjectives from his swollen, but beautiful, sentences. Meanwhile, he’s the one who points out when I‘ve been succinct when I should’ve been concise, two words that aren’t interchangeable in my book.

I’m one of those writers who never exceeds a word limit. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even come close to the limit without “tangential thoughts” packaged in short sentences separated by returns.

How about you? Are you “guilty” of sentences of paragraphic length (like Dr. Sacks and Mr. AMB) or paragraphs that consist of short, solitary sentences (like yours truly)?

***August 30, 2015: Oliver Sacks has passed away. He was 82. It’s impressive that he kept writing until the very end. According to the New York Times, “On Aug. 10, his assistant, Ms. Edgar, who described herself as his ‘collaborator, friend, researcher and editor’ as well, wrote in an email: ‘He is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.'”

19 thoughts on “Oliver Sacks on Writing (Why Use One Adjective When Six Could Apply?)

  1. I’m sparse when it comes to dialogue, unless it’s an arrogant, pontificating character, whom I so often love to include! But when it comes to describing, I’m guilty of using several adjectives, adverbs-you name it. Stephen King is well known for being wordy. I think it depends on what sort of tone you’re trying to create. Raymond Carver, as well as Hemingway, were those sparse prose writers. Very masculine, I suppose. But I would argue that it also depends on the characters you want to convey, not merely masculine characters, but ones who are more introverted. Thanks for the post Enid!

  2. I’ve always felt that the pace of a piece should match the story being told. There are some works for which ambling sentences are perfectly suited; the story itself is a series of digressions. However, in most cases I find that a lack of editing and not an artistic decision is responsible for overly-abundant sentences. I think, as a writer, it is more difficult to discern between the two in your own work than when critiquing others.

    1. “I think, as a writer, it is more difficult to discern between the two in your own work than when critiquing others.”

      I agree. That’s why editors are so important.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I am definitely guilty of overwriting. My father was a strong believer in being brief and concise. I hated having him review my papers when I was in school. My love for description and words didn’t mesh with his style. I am a much better writer now than I was. I’ve learned that flowery isn’t necessarily better. I think that has come from my own reading as well as age. Although, I’m still guilty of using more words than I should. I’m sure you’ve noticed by reading my comments and blog posts. 🙂 And where better to be reminded than on Twitter? LOL

    1. I always enjoy your meaty comments and blog posts! There’s nothing wrong with writing more if it helps the reader understand what you’re saying. I’m a succinct/concise writer, but I still find Twitter challenging. 140 characters? Come on!

  4. I was just thinking about the use of extra, descriptive words. I now write posts almost each equalling 500 words. I add the descriptive words to make it become 500 words. I know from being in advertising before architecture that editing for paper space was mandatory. Articles had to meet the specified number of words too. Even as the designer and artist, we had to edit to fit. I was just thinking about post writing and thought how boring it is without all the ways to have the reader “live” your experience. Not that I would increase word count, just make each word count for more. I can imagine in your profession, that each word does have the ultimate in meaning. Descriptions aside, your audience needs to feel the ” pain” or whatever emotion your clients experienced. I also was thinking why garden blogs are generally boring to read. Even TV shows on gardening were rather bland TV. Any wonder why so few? I think I figured it out too. Just not sure how to approach it in blog format just yet. The key is in why foodie blogs and TV shows rock an audience.

    1. My posts usually top out around 500 words (they were longer when I first started blogging). I think readers are more likely to finish shorter posts with more white space. Adjectives that help the reader “live” the experience aren’t superfluous. They enhance the writing. I wouldn’t cut those words out of a post.

  5. Short, though not excluding adjectives. It’s one lesson I’ve learnt through reading. I believe people generally no longer have great patience with long sentences, no matter how well constructed.
    And I totally ‘get’ Sack’s approach to old age, but only if one is free from financial and other anxiety in the latter years.

    1. “And I totally ‘get’ Sack’s approach to old age, but only if one is free from financial and other anxiety in the latter years.”

      You make a very important point. Aging gracefully is often dependent on economic privilege. It’s much harder for people to embrace it when they are living on fixed incomes that don’t go as far as necessary.

  6. My writing is spare and to the point. I had to teach myself to do internal dialog at all in my books, and I think I’ve struck a nice balance these days. I tend to cut adjectives unless they’re absolutely required to relay something to the reader. So many beginning writers overdo the use of words like “gently, softly, quietly,” I avoid using them in my work. I definitely belong to the school of “less is more.”

    1. I’m also in the “less is more” camp. I had to teach myself to describe setting after receiving too many comments along the lines of “WHERE ARE THEY?”

  7. Great article … what a refreshing viewpoint of the coming of old age!! I’ll have to try that. ; ))

    My writing style is a combination … I love to ramble on and can get as tangential as the next guy (ooo look, something shiny!! < ~ I literally did that in conversation with my husband recently … lady had a GREAT sparkly pink purse … it was magnificent!). But I digress. I do like to punch up my sentences with a shortie, though. Wakes 'em up.

  8. In my first drafts, I use adjectives and adverbs liberally with the addition of the occasional subordinate clause or two. In the editing process, I take out some of each. My beta reader removes more. I expect my editor, who has the work now, will kill all the remaining. Sigh.

    1. Good editors are so important. It’s always interesting to compare the first draft to the final draft. Often, they’re quite different (though perhaps not as different as Harper Lee’s Watchman is to Mockingbird!).

    2. Hi bhalsop! I was wondering, and this isn’t just directed to you, but also toward anyone who happens to see this comment. But do you know any good developmental editors? I love my friends and family, but they aren’t exactly professionals. 😉

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