We hear this term batted about a bunch, don’t we. Especially in writers’ groups, in how-to books, classes, etc., being too wordy is often an easy place to begin picking apart an aspiring writer’s work.
Once upon a time, writers were paid by the word. So, naturally, they wanted to use as many of them as possible. But that went the way of the Tasmanian tiger a while back.
Another thing that trips folks up is the idea that well, a novel is anywhere from 75K-100K words. So what the heck—who cares if my prose takes a while to get from points A to Z?
What happens using that perspective is that your voice may indeed be beautiful, but readers can’t find it under all the verbiage.
Wordiness is, well, just using too many of them to get the point across.
So how can you tighten that prose?
Let us just count a few ways:
1. Omit ancillary words and phrases
This is more prevalent in most writers’ works than you’d think.
Example: ‘squinted his eyes’ becomes merely ‘squinted,’ as what else does one squint? ‘Nodded his head’ becomes just ‘nodded,’ for the same reason.
As you get going, these become very easy to see.
2. Be suspicious of prepositional phrases
Most of the time, all these do is slow down the movement, and add useless words.
Example: ‘He bowed his head for a moment.’
Do you really need the ‘for a moment’? Unless his head usually only stays bowed for a very long time, the action following will carry the moment along.
3. Don’t script every move
Not only is this very telling, very directorial, but it bogs your story down in action that doesn’t matter.
We don’t need to know every single move a character makes—but rather, the important ones.
Ex: ‘He stood up and walked to the mirror and combed his hair to the side.’
Unless he’s been confined to a wheelchair and had a miraculous healing before standing to go comb his hair, the standing up and walking is useless action and words.
Much better: ‘As he did every morning, he combed his thinning hair to the side.’ That way, we get lots of history along with a visual, and action.
4. Also avoid writing a character’s mundane actions
You know, we don’t need to see the character getting out of bed, going to the bathroom (I’m always amazed by how often I see this!), taking a shower, picking out his clothes, putting them on, etc., etc.
By now, he could already be where the action is! And your reader has gone to get another cup of coffee, and may not be back.
5.Avoid having your characters ‘seem to’ or ‘proceed to’ or ‘decide to’ or ‘begin to’ do something
We think in those terms, no? Use them in everyday life. So it’s really easy to slip into that laziness of prose as well.
But unless things are truly not as they seem in this specific action, just have him do it or not do it.
6. Say it once, say it well
“But this is so important I want to make sure the reader gets it!”
Quite often I see paragraphs that take 2-3 sentences to get the point across. And basically, these sentences say the same thing, in a slightly different way.
Funny enough, that has the opposite effect of what you seek. The tighter, the more concise you can make the crucial parts, the bigger impact they have.
Take a hard look at these groupings within paragraphs. Boil each down to one, strong, vibrant sentence.
7. Be careful of word repetitions close together
Why would that be an issue, one might think.
For the simple reason that by using a bigger variety, you paint a broader word picture using fewer of them.
That’s almost a self-tightening of the prose.
And all of that’s the point, no? To paint a multi-faceted picture for your reader to experience. That’s why tightening your prose to make it sing is so very important, even when you’re needing 100k of them in order to fill an entire book.