Now this one seems self-explanatory, doesn’t it?
No one wants to be seen as a wordy writer. But often I see prose that just drowns under a sea of words.
And honestly, what makes for tight writing is more subtle than what’s apparent on the surface. So, let’s just pinpoint some of the most universal offenders.
- Ancillary words and phrases.
This can be as simple as ‘He squinted his eyes,’ or, ‘He nodded his head.’
Those don’t seem so bad, do they? But what else can he squint? What else does he nod? Unless she ‘nodded her butt at him,’ which would be humorous in its absurdity, you can lose what was squinted or nodded.
Carrying this a bit further, rather than ‘She took a hastened step backward,’ ‘jumped back’ is stronger, more active, and tighter. In other words, rather than using a weak verb plus a modifier, use the stronger verb.
Now, I’m not an advocate of losing modifiers altogether. Sometimes you want to slow things down, or emphasize an action.
But as with all things writerly, weigh what you lose and what you gain. That’s what makes a great novel, or work of nonfiction.
- Prepositional phrases.
Lose them. Unless I truly need to know that ‘After several minutes, she walked down the hall,’ just let me know she walked down the hall.
Now, if a la Alfred Hitchcock you have a time bomb ticking, and every second is important, then yes, give us the timing.
Otherwise, you’ve just added extra words and slowed down the story.
- Script each move.
Boy, do I see a lot of this!
‘She walked down the hall, turned to the left, rounded a corner, and put her hand on the doorknob.’ Again, if you’re upping suspense, or we need to know exactly where the room sits in relation to everything in the house (I can think of very few instances where the latter is important), then yep, use the phrasing (but do so more creatively!).
Otherwise, nix all of that and get her into the room.
- Seem to, begin to, decide to.
Again, sometimes it’s important for a character to decide to do something. If he’s been struggling with a decision and that’s part of the plot and character growth, then use it.
But for the most part, all that’s important is for him to do it. Not begin to, not seem to, not decide to.
That phrasing slows everything down, and adds unnecessary words.
- Say something once, say it well.
Almost universally, I see writers taking 2-3 sentences to convey a thought, where one strong, active one would say it oh-so-much better.
And funny thing—rather than emphasizing the thought, this actually waters down the idea, obscures it even.
Study your prose. Study what you’re saying. Where can you cut and convey exactly what you mean more powerfully in less words?
- Using word repetitions close together.
Now, this doesn’t seem like a tightening rule at first blush, does it? Why would it be important?
We’re painting word pictures on the page. Not only do repetitive words become monotonous, but by choosing different ones, you paint a broader picture in less of them.
- Details, details, details.
This one carries over from prose to storyline, and everything in between.
You know, when you’re first writing, especially a novel, you, as the author, are discovering things about your characters. Which is a great thing, and truly necessary. And often, this translates to all the nuances of their lives, there on the page, as you get to know them.
For a first draft, that’s fine. You learn things about them as you go.
But revision is a wonderful thing. That’s where you ax out a lot of unnecessary points.
Because while it’s vital for you, as the author, to know everything about everybody, your reader needn’t know all that stuff. Your reader doesn’t want to know all that stuff.
Your reader is trusting you to convey only those points that are vital to your plot, characters, or best—both.
An old adage in this business goes: Be careful of sending your reader down a pathway that doesn’t lead directly back into the main thoroughfare. He just may take that road and not come back (e.g., put down the book and not pick it back up).
That’s of course the antithesis of what makes a great novel or work of nonfiction.
As I say often, everything about writing—literally everything—is in service to the characters, the storyline, and the book as a whole.
So weigh your words carefully—every single one.
The bottom line is, we want your prose so tight it sings, and for your images to come fully to the fore (rather than being buried under verbiage) so the gems of your writing shine.
What could be better?