Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On buttery butter, compress to impress, less is more, etc.

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On buttery butter, compress to impress, less is more, etc.

To indicate her displeasure with overwritten sentences, my grandmother used the phrase "buttery butter." What she meant by it was this: if you write "butter" it’s clear already what you’re talking about. There’s no need to explain. Everyone knows what butter is. Everyone knows butter is buttery.

As a general rule, my grandmother despised adjectives and adverbs. I, on the other hand, buttered up my nouns liberally, laying that butter on thick. Yet, as the time passed and I started to write stories, I began to pay more attention to my grandmother's words. I began to simplify my writing. I began to omit buttery words.

My grandmother wrote a lot of letters. She had relatives all over Russia, with whom she corresponded almost every day. At night, after her chores, she sat at the kitchen table, bent over sheets of lined paper and stamped envelopes. She had one of those old-fashioned pens with a metal nip, which you had to dip into ink. With the said metal nip, she'd cross out countless words. Compress to impress, she'd say while she was doing it. Less is more.

These days instead of lined sheets of paper, I use an iPad. I also use my finger, instead of a pen and ink. But I cross countless words out too, just like my grandmother did. Especially when I give writing advice to students who major in science and who also happen to be ESL.

It usually goes like this:

Clarity is key.

Be specific.

Use active language.

Avoid words with – ing and –ly.

Avoid ambiguity: ensure your words say exactly what you mean.

Use the minimal number of words possible.

Eliminate excess punctuation (like commas).

Read your work out loud. If you run out of breath, your sentences are too long.

Example of buttery butter:

The cells were washed by adding 10 ml of phosphate buffered saline (PBS) to the coverslip and swirling it around, then removing the PBS gently with a disposable pipette. The cells were washed 3 times in this manner and the wash was removed. The secondary antibody was added to PBS to make a 1:200 dilution and then added to the cells on the coverslip. The cells were incubated with the secondary antibody for 45 minutes.

Unbuttery version:

Cells were washed 3 times with 10 ml of PBS, then incubated with secondary antibody (1:200 in PBS) for 45 minutes.

The great teacher of writing William Zinsser, who died last month at 92, has a Chapter entitled "Clutter" in his best-selling guide On Writing Well. I'm sure Zinsser knew buttery butter when he saw it. He writes:

Look for clutter in your own writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Now, some of you may prefer the buttery writing. Because there's also a question of style. Indeed, after posting an earlier version of this blog, I received an email from a reader who took exception to my, what he called, "wearisomely 101" advice. And I hear him and appreciate the sentiment he expressed.

Bottom line: some fat is good for you, and a little bit of butter is perfectly fine. How does the old mantra go? Everything in moderation, right? Spice things up every once in a while. Innovate. Experiment. Raymond Carver, Don Dellilo, and Vladimir Nabokov (as the disgruntled reader wisely pointed out) are examples of super and buttery style.

Well. I suppose I should follow my own advise and avoid all ambiguity. In this post, I'm urging (mostly ESL, mostly science) students to adopt crisp and clear sentences to map out their writing path.

Afterward, there will be plenty of room for detours. There will be plenty of room for research. As you experiment with your writing style, eat butter, use a little bit of it, or avoid it at all costs.

Maybe one day someone will consume your delicious writing and won't believe there is no butter at all.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Irina Kovalyova

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

You can contact Irina throughout the month of June at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Irina Kovalyova’s Author Page