magine you’re at the doctor’s for a routine exam. You step on the scale and the doctor says, “Ooh. You’re gonna have to lose about half of that.” Your reaction? Shock. Horror. An intense craving for Cold Stone’s Cookie Doughn’t Ya Want Some Gotta Have It size.
Writers are like ice cream connoisseurs. We savor language, heaping it on our pages like extra dollops of whipped cream. And, just like the patient above, we suffer for it. Writing guru William Zinsser suggests that many first drafts contain so much additional verbiage that they should be cut by 50 percent.
Cutting half of a manuscript is terrifying. We fear pages stripped of beautiful metaphors, quirky euphemisms, personalized examples—with only a bland, anorexic frame left behind. But the trick to trimming the fat from your manuscript isn’t radical surgery or deprivation. It all comes down to a well-planned approach resembling an effective weight loss program. I recently put my own work-in-progress through such a program and came away with tips to get the most adipose manuscript bikini-ready by spring.
“Writers are like ice cream connoisseurs. We savor language, heaping it on our pages like extra dollops of whipped cream.”
Examine Your Writing’s Nutritional Content
If restaurant menus included nutritional data, patrons could make healthier choices. Similarly, understanding the components of your writing allows you to eliminate ineffective words.
Avoid Junk Food
Never one to limit creativity, my fourth grade teacher encouraged students to fill whole pages with description. The dog didn’t sleep on a rug; the dog lazily, restlessly, and fitfully slept on a rug. In fact, the dog wasn’t just a dog—it was a cute, sad dog with big watery eyes and brown fur with matted tangles. And don’t even get me started on that rug! It was a soft, fluffy, creamy white rug under the brown, square table, next to the tall, green plant, behind the... Well, you get the point.
Apparently, this teacher never read William Zinsser’s statement that “writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” Adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions are the junk food of great writing. While professional writers would never pile them on with the abandon of a fourth grader, superfluous language sneaks in.
“Adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions are the junk food of great writing.”
Portion Control—Relevance and Necessity
There’s nothing wrong with: “The brown bloodhound tossed and turned in its sleep on a really fluffy, white rug.” But we can eliminate flab by considering the relevance of details. Unless the rug is blood-soaked or tattered from gnawing, its texture and color aren’t relevant.
This doesn’t mean details are unimportant. Stories require world building. Readers must understand the features of a character’s personality, environment, and community to comprehend the struggle inherent to that character. But the conscious choices authors make are what draw readers into the story world. One perfect, specific detail—like Harry Potter’s scar—speaks volumes.
Irrelevance also plagues nonfiction. Writers might be tempted to mention that an interviewee learned Taiwanese in six months. If the subject’s latest book occurs in Taiwan, then this would deepen understanding of the subject’s efforts to create the novel. If the book addresses domestic investments in a recovering economy, the subject’s language acquisition isn’t relevant. Sometimes the line between interesting and relevant isn’t clear. For instance, an article about Sara Gruen’s Ape House needs to address Gruen’s study of bonobo apes. That scientists studied speech acquisition in primates as early as 1886 belongs more in an article about the apes themselves than one about Gruen’s work.
Even when every detail is relevant, unnecessary language in the form of modifiers, ineffective word choice, and repetition distend a manuscript. Modifiers are those sly little words and phrases that ostensibly clarify meaning, when all they really do is up the word count. Strunk and White considered intensifiers and qualifiers “the leeches that infest the pond of prose.” Consider our “really fluffy rug” from the example above. The word “really” is meant as a clue that the rug is more than fluffy. Skilled writers don’t rely on modifiers to do the work. They search for the precise word—downy, luxuriant, or pillowy—making the use of modifiers akin to sprinkling salt on fast food fries. Really and truly unnecessary.
“Skilled writers don’t rely on modifiers to do the work. They search for the precise word...making the use of modifiers akin to sprinkling salt on fast food fries.”
Spunk & Bite author, Arthur Plotnik, proposed Germanisms as exceptions to the bland modifier, describing them as “shorthand with attitude.” Germanisms are front-loaded modifiers, a telegraphic clustering of words using hyper-hyphenation, that are especially effective in capturing the ever-elusive snarkiness of the teen voice. Used sparingly, Germanisms can propel writing from oh-my-god-that-has-so-been-doneness to I-can’t-stop-reading-this-is-so-greatness. Too many Germanisms can overwhelm a piece, sending it straight to the so-high-you-can’t-see-the-top rejection pile. Be careful when figuring Germanisms into word counts. Some word processors consider hyphenated words as a single word; editors may count each word separately.
Poor word choice may also contribute to a manuscript’s obesity. While many writers can recognize awkward phrasing, few know how to fix it without piling on more words. Brevity is best. This is especially true with gendered pronouns, when the battle of the sexes incites a war over word count. The gender issue is easily rectified through pluralization or elimination of the distractor.
“Awkward sentences clang in the reader’s ear, making him or her close his or her copy of the book.”
“Awkward sentences clang in readers’ ears, causing them to close their books.”
“Awkward sentences clang in the ear.”
“Unintentional repetition bloats manuscripts and isn’t easy to pinpoint in our own work.”
Unintentional repetition bloats manuscripts and isn’t easy to pinpoint in our own work. The overuse of the same word can be eliminated by a routine search and destroy; it’s harder to recognize repetition involving the same root word used in different contexts, as in “stripped of ... our personalized examples—leaving an anorexic frame that lacks personality.” Even more difficult to identify are redundancies. Consider our fiction example about the sleeping dog. If bloodhounds are typically brown and one that is tossing and turning is obviously sleeping, it’s redundant to write “the brown bloodhound tossed and turned in its sleep.”
Most insipid is repetition of effect. On a small scale, repetition of effect occurs when a writer quotes a source and then rephrases the quote to underscore its importance or to connect it to the topic. Readers may feel hit over the head with something they could easily figure out.
Novelists are especially prone to repetition of effect, sometimes devoting entire scenes to repeated information hoping to deepen the reader’s understanding of motive or to ratchet up the tension. In my own novel, I cut entire chapters when I realized they only served as another example of something the reader already understood. Novice writers strive to “show, don’t tell,” only to undermine those efforts by telling what they have just shown. This type of repetition is usually due to lack of confidence—either in the reader’s ability to comprehend or in the writer’s ability to craft an effective story. Either way, the reader should only have to read it once.
When Diet Isn’t Enough
No matter how carefully writers avoid irrelevant, unnecessary, or repetitive language, our manuscripts still need tightening. This is where our writing muscles get a workout. As you write, consider the tone of the story. Is your article conversational or academic? Is your novel a murky mystery or a heartrending exploration of humanity? Effecting tone involves planning the emotional cord you wish to strike and then monitoring each word’s power to evoke that feeling. Deciding your preferred tone early on can shape your writing and eliminate unneeded phrases. Pacing, word choice, and voice are all interrelated and impact tone.
Pick up the pace and make the tone of your piece more immediate by varying sentence length. Short, choppy sentences were the bane of my fourth grade teacher, but writers need them to add variety to prose and trim sizeable chunks from any story. Along with adjectives and adverbs, consider jettisoning a few prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns. Effective use of punctuation can turn a fragment into a quirky snippet that gives your work personality.
“He was the man who stood in the way.”
“He stood in the way.”
“The man stood in the way, and he was angry and red-faced.”
“The man stood in the way—angry, red-faced.”
“In strong writing, nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting. Purge weakness by evaluating each word’s impact. Particularly weak are forms of ‘to be.’”
In strong writing, nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting. Purge weakness by evaluating each word’s impact. Particularly weak are forms of “to be.” Used to link the subject to a stronger verb, words like is, am, are, were, and was provide no action and should be replaced with powerful verbs. “She was responsible for collecting milk money,” becomes “She collected milk money.”
Specific words carry more weight and require less tacked-on description than common words—bloodhound vs. dog; chalet vs. house; electrocute vs. murder; plop vs. sit. Sometimes, synonyms decrease word count. In rewriting this article, I changed:
“Writers have a lot in common with the ice cream connoisseur,”
“Writers resemble ice cream connoisseurs.”
A savings of six words. Specificity is not related to word length, though. Don’t choose a longer word unless it enhances the meaning or eliminates excess verbiage. Risks exist when choosing shorter phrases, too. I once used the word “prosaic” as an antonym of poetic—intending that the writing had the characteristics of prose, only to learn that prosaic means “lacking imagination.” My subsequent rant on equating prose with lack of creativity added thirty words to my article.
Many writers experiment with the traditional role of words. Say, you are leaving a note to your teenager on how to prepare dinner. You’d choose the conciseness of “Microwave leftovers” over the verbose “Use the microwave to reheat leftovers.” Yet, for many years “microwave” was only considered a noun. Recently the verbification of nouns has become more accepted, although not all nouns lend themselves to this. It would be a leap to expect readers to decode “Mike couched Lisa” to mean “Mike seated Lisa on the couch.”
False subjects, such as “it” and “there,” are weak and add words. Avoid them. Another tactic is to choose contractions when tone allows.
“There are thirteen boys who do not like ice cream.” (ten words)
“Thirteen boys do not like ice cream.” (seven words)
“Thirteen boys don’t like ice cream.” (six words)
You’ll be amazed by the difference a few apostrophes make. Contractions shaved twenty-five words from this article.
Passive voice, with its complicated constructs, makes writing less immediate and contributes to wordiness. Mignon Fogarty—known in the blogosphere as Grammar Girl—writes that sentences shouldn’t be labeled passive just because they contain a form of “to be.” Fogarty differentiates between active and passive voice by the relationship of the subject to the action. Subjects performing the action are active. Subjects acted upon are passive. Think of the passive sentence as a couch potato: “The couch potato was ignored by the family.” The coach potato is lazy and inactive—the action of ignoring is done by the family. Kick that couch potato in the rear—make him eat chips, stretch, get up—as soon as he does something, he becomes active. In our milk money examples, the subject “she” actively collects milk money. The sentence becomes passive when milk money is the subject: “Milk money was collected.”
Climb Back on the Scale
After each round of revisions, writers brave the scale again and face the truth: our manuscripts still need tightening. Ideally, we should strive to attain the poet’s economy of language while maintaining the prosal—not prosaic—tone of great storytellers. No easy task, but at least now you have a place to start.
As for me, after three months of revising, I have cut 23,000 words from my novel.
Only one unfortunate side effect—I ate so much ice cream, I gained nine pounds.
Katherine Higgs-Coulthard is founder and director of Michiana Writers’ Center in Indiana, a fun job that provides just enough income to support her addictions: caramel macchioatos and frenzied bursts of caffeinated fiction writing. Kathy’s YA novel is in its umpteenth revision and soon will be making its way to NYC and into the hands of eager editors (who may or may not be figments of Kathy’s imagination).
Enjoyed this article? Check out more from Katherine on WOW!: Channeling the Voice of Youth: An Interview with Ellen Hopkins
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