verba volent, scripta manent – words flee, writing remains
TRIM THE FAT FROM YOUR WRITING
© Marg Gilks
Too long! You may see that in a rejection letter, or you may think that as you pore over submission guidelines, trying to find a market that will take your 20,000 word story or 3,000 word article or a publisher that considers novels over 150,000 words.
Your manuscript may not just be too long — it may be too fat. Here's how to trim away the excess wordage and end up with a lean, clear piece.
Many writers fear simple words; they think that simple words mean simple ideas. In most cases, though, plain language creates succinct, clear prose that conveys your message more effectively. Why send your reader to the dictionary for "prognosticate" when "predict" will do? Your reader will resent being put to so much work, and think you're a snob, as well.
In fact, plain language is invisible to the reader, leaving only the story without any interference from noticeable writing — it immerses the reader in the story without distractions.
Some writers go to great lengths to avoid the simple — literally. Instead of using "now" they use "at this point in time"; instead of "because" they choose "in view of the fact that"; instead of "to" they opt for "for the purpose of." One simple, understandable word is inflated into five words; six words; four words. And readers? They'll probably come away from your piece not knowing what it was about.
Don't bury your action words, your verbs. Let's plow through — oh, sorry — let's look at this example:
The discovery of Tahiti was made by Captain Cook.
My little Freudian slip wasn't too far off the mark, was it? The sentence is cumbersome, propped up with only the weak verb construction "was made." Let's dig a better verb free:
Captain Cook discovered Tahiti.
By changing the noun "discovery" to the verb "discovered," the sentence is less convoluted and — bonus! — it's also five words shorter.
Look at your manuscript. Are you guilty of convoluted constructions, obscure words and smothered verbs? Search and destroy! Challenge yourself to find the clearest, tightest way to convey your message.
Redundancy is saying the same thing two ways, or more than once — repeating it (as I just did). I divide redundancies into three categories: redundancies on the word level, those on a larger line or paragraph level, and those that are just plain unnecessary.
Word-level redundancies can often slip by because they're catch phrases that familiarity has blinded us to: "past history" (if it's in the past, it's history); "close proximity" ("proximity" means "closeness"); "pre-approved" or "pre-registration" (purchase or participation comes only after an application has been approved, or after the participant has registered; therefore, "pre" is redundant). To catch these, you have to read your manuscript with a skeptic's eye, picking each word or phrase apart — " 'Serious crisis'? Yeah, right. Is there such a thing as a frivolous crisis?"
Sometimes the author wants to make sure the reader understands the message or the action, so he writes it one way, and then another:
"Mavis was a skilled seamstress who had studied under the master costumer, Ribaldi. She knew every detail of the materials she worked with: the velvets and muslins and damasks, the cotton threads and the silk flosses, the pearl buttons and bone stays."
Then, a paragraph or so later:
"Expert at sewing, Mavis knew everything there was to know about the cloth and accessories she used."
This often happens when the writer isn't totally clear in his own mind how best to convey his message. If he's not certain of what he's saying, he subconsciously fears the reader might not understand. So he over-explains. The solution is simple. Pick one version and cut the other.
Here are two examples of redundancy that's a waste of words:
"The island of Cuba is not part of a larger landmass." (If it's an island, of course it isn't.)
"I'm scared," Jenny said fearfully. (She just said she's scared; the dialogue itself implies she's fearful, so "fearfully" is unnecessary.)
Looking at these with your new skeptic's eye, they're just plain silly, aren't they. Don't restate the obvious.
CHOOSE VIBRANT, ACTIVE WRITING OVER PASSIVE, LAZY WRITING
Use the active voice rather than passive voice. What is passive voice? It can be identified by its form alone. The main verb is always a past participle, or in the past tense, such as "caught" or "walked" and is preceded by a form of "be" (is, was, am, are, were, being, or been). And the person performing the action appears at the end of the sentence or doesn't appear at all.
Passive: "The watch was found on the dresser."
Active: "He found the watch on the dresser."
Passive: "The store was opened by her."
Active: "She opened the store."
Active voice is simpler, less wordy, and is more immediate. The very structure of passive verbs suggests that an action took place in the past, not the story present — "had been determined"; "was rocked." Active verbs have muscle. Passive verbs are flabby.
Adjectives and adverbs, rather than being descriptive, are often empty labels; they tell instead of show. Some writers mistakenly feel that heaping adjective upon adjective, or adverb on adverb, will heighten the drama:
"She lifted one delicate, soft pink foot and gently placed it on the muscular knee of the big man who was frowning angrily at her. 'Now, why don't you be a dear and rub it better,' she said sweetly."
What they get instead is purple prose. Let the characters show the reader, and cut the telling adverbs and adjectives:
"She slid her foot onto his knee. He scowled at her. She smiled, unintimidated by his size. 'Be a dear, won't you, and rub it better.' "
Are you counting words by now? If so, you'll realize the revised example says more, in thirteen words less.
A word here, a word there — you'll be surprised how many you can lose, just by trimming the fat from your writing.
Marg Gilks is a writer and professional editor specializing in fiction. She's been working one-on-one with authors to help them prepare their work for publication for over ten years. Visit http://www.scripta-word-services.com/ to learn more about her editing services, manuscript evaluations, and FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION, her 8-week e-mail course covering fiction-writing basics including point of view, showing instead of telling...all the way through to putting the final polish on your manuscript.
This article may be reprinted in its entirety (including bio) if you e-mail me for permission.
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