In Part I, I talked about revising your fiction to take out any words that aren’t needed, to strengthen what’s left and make your message more powerful and accessible.
Here are more tips for streamlining your writing.
1. Cut out qualifiers.
Start by cutting out qualifiers like very, quite, rather, somewhat, kind of, and sort of, which just dilute your message, weaken the imagery, and dissipate the tension.
Before: “I’m honestly quite surprised and a bit disappointed at her reaction, as I kind of thought we’d resolved that issue.”
After: “I’m surprised and disappointed at her reaction, as I thought we’d resolved that issue.”
Before: “She was rather worried about the situation, and it was making her very tense.”
After: “She was worried about the situation and it was making her tense.”
2. Take out the word “that” wherever it’s not needed.
Read the sentence out loud, and if it still makes sense without the “that,” remove it. Smooths out the sentence – less clunky.
Examples: He told me that he’d be here at five. => He told me he’d be here at five.
The dog that you gave me is growing fast. => The dog you gave me is growing fast.
Before: She said that you thought that it was too expensive and that you wanted to shop around.
After: She said you thought it was too expensive and you wanted to shop around.
However, be sure to keep the “that” if it’s necessary for meaning, or if omitting it will cause even momentary confusion and force the reader to read the sentence again:
“He claimed the property was worth $2 million” could at first glance be read, “He claimed the property” (as in “for himself”), so better to say, “He claimed that the property was…”
Similarly, “They believed the prisoners should be punished” is clearer with “that”:
“They believed that the prisoners should be punished.” Otherwise a fast reader might first think of the meaning “They believed the prisoners.”
3. Cut way back on adjectives and adverbs.
Many or even most adjectives and adverbs are dispensable. Instead, use stronger nouns and verbs. Sol Stein recommends a bold approach: “The quickest way of increasing the pace of a manuscript and strengthening it at the same time is to remove all adjectives and adverbs, and then readmit the necessary few after careful testing.”
See how many –ly adverbs you can cut. Use a stronger verb instead. Rather than “He walked purposefully across the room,” say “He strode across the room.” Or how about, “She screamed loudly.” A scream is loud, so no need to add “loudly.” Same with “He hurriedly scribbled a note.” Scribbling implies writing quickly, so no need for the adverb. Same with “She whispered softly.” Or “He ran quickly.” Take out “quickly,” or even better, use a more descriptive verb: “He raced” or “He dashed.”
Then see how many adjectives you can cut. If you describe someone or something with three or four adjectives, can you cut out one or two, and just leave the strongest, most apt one or two? That way, what’s left will stand out more and have more power.
Before: It was a beautiful, huge, historic Victorian mansion.
After: It was a beautiful Victorian mansion.
But don’t go to extremes and delete all adjectives and adverbs. Some adjectives and adverbs enhance rather than detracting. Here are some tips for deciding which adverbs and adjectives to cut, and which to keep (adapted from advice by Sol Stein).
Keep any adjectives and adverbs that:
· Supply necessary information for reader understanding.
· Help the reader visualize the precise image or feeling you want to project.
· Stimulate the reader’s curiosity and keep the story moving along, like “She had a haunted look.”
4. Take out dialogue tags (he said, she said, etc.) where it’s obvious who’s speaking. But don’t take them all out – that can be annoying if the reader is forced to check back four or five lines to see who’s talking now.
5. Take out all those little unnecessary words and prepositional phrases that clutter up your sentences.
Some before => after examples:
in the vicinity of => near
as a consequence of => because
for the simple reason that => because
owing to the fact that => because
a large percentage of => many
has the appearance of => looks like
engaged the services of => hired
with the exception of => except for
take into consideration => write “consider
Thomas spoke in a muffled fashion. => Thomas mumbled.
Some more examples of cutting unnecessary little words and streamlining your prose, from Jodie’s editing (modified and disguised):
Before: A moment passed before he remembered…
After: Then he remembered…
Before: He moved his mouse pointer over to the other email that he had received.
After: He clicked on the other email he had received.
Before: Jake pulled the jeep off by the side of the road near the path that led to the old cabin.
After: Jake pulled off near the path that led to the old cabin.
Before: Johnson paused a moment before replying as he slowed the car in preparation for a right-hand turn onto a smaller road, resuming the conversation as the car again picked up speed.
After: Johnson paused as he slowed the car to turn right onto a smaller road, then continued as the car picked up speed.
In Part III, we’ll talk about reducing repetitions in all their forms, as well as "RUE" (Resist the Urge to Explain), “info dumps,” and other strategies for cutting clutter and redundancies to empower your writing.
Robert W. Harris, When Good People Write Bad Sentences
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us
Sol Stein, On Writing
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Please check out Jodie’s website and blog, as well as her group blog, Crime Fiction Collective.
Both are on sale at Amazon, and you don’t need to own a Kindle to buy and read Kindle e-books – you can download them to your PC, Mac, tablet or smartphone. Style that Sizzles will be out in paperback soon.