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A Word, Please: Breaking down the prose of pros

January 08, 2011

Recently, I wrote a post on my blog,, pretending to edit the first page of the late Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," the third book in a series that has sold more than 20 million copies.

Never have I gotten so many hits. Though a few readers said Larsson's writing needed no improvement, most who wrote to me agreed that Larsson's prose was — how can I put this? — problematic.

And no, I don't think the problems occurred when the work was translated from its original Swedish. To me, the biggest problems with Larsson's writing are not his word choices but his information choices.


On the first page of "Hornet's Nest," he takes three opportunities to say that a just-awakened doctor is groggy, but doesn't bother telling readers there's a window in the room that affords the doctor a highly convenient view of both the ocean and a helipad.

Then, Larsson writes, "For a second he held his breath when the pilot seemed to have difficulty controlling the aircraft." But he doesn't tell us what the doctor saw. That the pilot "seemed to have difficulty" was all Larsson saw fit to mention.

Some of Larsson's shortcomings are notable only to aspiring novelists and literary critics. But other problems contain lessons for everyone who writes anything at all — be it an e-mail, a business memo or marketing copy.

Here's a sentence from the second book in the series, "The Girl Who Played with Fire": "The third significant piece of information was the insight that Bublanski's team did not have a single lead as to where they should look for Salander."

There are several problems with this sentence, but the one that interests me is the abstract, uninteresting main clause. To isolate it, find the subject of the sentence, "piece," and the main verb "was." Together, they form the foundation for the thought: a "piece of information was the insight."

Compare that to this sentence from Stephen King's "Full Dark, No Stars": "She rushed around the front of the pickup, lost her balance, went to one knee, got up, and yanked open the driver's side door."

In the King sentence, we have a tangible subject, a woman, and real actions for verbs, starting with "rush." Almost any writing teacher or editor will tell you that a person doing something is more interesting than a piece of information existing.

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