Writers often think about tightening their writing. Just what does that mean? And how is it done? Is there a way that writers can tighten writing without losing their voice or compromising their writing style?
Like sneaky calories, many unwanted words and phrases find their way into our writing unnoticed and bog it down. The goal should be to write in a concise fashion so that our meaning is clearly understood. It’s not all that tricky to do. And don’t worry—this can be done without adversely cramping a writer’s style.
That’s not to say these tips are a cure-all for major flaws in a story, article, or book. But similar to the get-in-shape-fast programs, here are some simple things writers can do to tighten sentences, shed unwanted words, and tone and shape the whole “body” of work.
- Eliminate fatty words from your “diet.” Make a list of your weasel words. Those are the words you throw in out of habit. Often they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to. Grab a random page of your document and see if you can eliminate at least one or two words from every sentence. It may not be possible, but it’s a good exercise. If the word doesn’t add importance to a sentence, it should go. Then attack the rest of your manuscript.
- Reword passive voice where possible. Whether referring to general passive (“The food was eaten by me” instead of “I ate the food”) or present progressive passive (“The food is being served” instead of “the waiters served the food”), most of the time a sentence will be stronger if you avoid the passive voice. An easy way to seek and destroy unwanted passive construction is do a “Find” for ing, was, is, it was, and there was, to name a few.
- Avoid circumlocution. I just love that word, so I have to use it. Don’t use two words when one will do. Don’t use four when three will do. If two adjectives are similar, pick the best one and toss the other.
- Ditch the extraneous speaker and narrative tags. If you are writing narrative nonfiction, you may have dialog in your piece. Be aware that if the reader knows who is speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over—especially in a scene with only two characters. And remove all those flowery verbs that stick out, such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected. Just use said and asked, and maybe an occasional replied or answered. Really. Less is more . . . effective.
- Search and destroy repetition. We tend to repeat words, phrases, or ideas in the same paragraph. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do, to drive home a point, perhaps in summary at the end of a section or subheading. But writers often try to say the same thing in a different way, and instead of adding new material they are essentially rehashing what they’ve already said. One great way to catch those repetitive words is to hear your piece read aloud using a software program like Natural Reader.
- And a word about backstory . . . Yes, the dreaded backstory, which novelists have been told to shun in the first chapters of a novel but that memoirists use as well. But really, do you need it? Take a look at all the places you have backstory and boil down just a few lines of the most important information you feel the reader must know to “get” the story. Then see if you can find another way to impart the information.
If you’re the kind of writer that needs to “add weight” to your skimpy book, you have a different challenge, and the problem won’t be solved by ignoring all the above tips. Remember, it’s the unwanted fat you want to eliminate. Be sure what you add to a skimpy manuscript is muscle, not fat. And for the rest of us who overwrite, be reassured that by implementing these easy tips, you can help trim those unwanted “pounds” from your pages and tighten your writing.
About the Author
C. S. Lakin is a multipublished novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here.