I’ve been having an e-mail discussion with a writer who’s still learning. He’s in that still-pretty-confident phase but headed hard and fast into the OMG-this-is-a-lot-harder-than-I-thought phase. A full and frank conversation with an editor will do that to a man.
Still, I learn things from these little chats too. (And I get to develop them into blog posts.) Sometimes I forget that my lingo may not be your lingo. If it happens to you, please do stop me—as this gentleman did—and request an explanation.
“Can you clarify,” he wrote, “your comments on tightening? I’m assuming it doesn’t just mean deleting all the time?”
Um, actually that’s pretty much exactly what it means—but don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. Think of it as a necessary thing. Less really is more. Always. Write and then pare your words. Try to lean up your prose as you read over it a second, third, fourth time. There’s a little maxim about writing—I can’t remember it, but it goes something like this: write ’til you think it’s perfect, then cut it in half.
This doesn’t mean I want you to make yourself the next Hemingway. (Although you could do worse.) But every sentence needs to make its point in the right number of words—as many as are necessary, no more. Every paragraph needs to do its work in the right number of sentences. You should eliminate from your writing all the extra words, the editorial comment, the throat clearing, the meaningless words like suddenly and then and very.*
Here are some other thoughts on where to tighten up your prose:
• If that sentence, paragraph, or scene isn’t advancing the plot or revealing character, get rid of it.
• Watch carefully for conversations that have no meaning to the story. Dialogue should also advance the plot or shed light on character motivation—not just fill space.
• Resist the urge to explain (RUE). You don’t have to tell readers every single thing. Don’t state the obvious.
• You don’t need to break down a timeline, either. Make use of hiatus breaks.
• Don’t give us two or three examples when one really good one will do.
• Stay away from weasel words, unless you have a particularly weaselly character. And don’t be confused by what constitutes a weasel word.
• Avoid empty words and phrases like truth be told, just then, for the most part, well, rather …
• Watch out for clichés and hackneyed phrases. Cut them.
• Use caution with adverbs (don’t say He walked wearily when you could use trudged).
• Cut useless detail (remember Chekhov’s Gun).
• Get rid of telling statements.
These are all ways to tighten up your prose. Yes, it’s primarily cutting. But once you get started, you’ll find it’s less painful than you imagined. And once you get a look at the results, I think you’ll be glad you did.
* Do as I say, not as I do: my blog is full of editorial asides and throat clearings and such. Why? Because that’s my blog voice. It may be your voice, too, but I’m guessing it’s not.
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