Monday, February 17, 2014

Concrete Tips for Decluttering Your Prose

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time decluttering my desk, files, closets, cupboards and drawers in preparation for my upcoming move across the country. It’s been tedious and painful, but now that a lot of it is done, the place looks so much better. And it’s such a relief to be rid of a lot of stuff I wasn’t using anyway, and had forgotten I even had! I feel lighter, less encumbered.

Once you’ve written the first draft of your novel or short story, it’s time to go back and look for places where you may have cluttered up your sentences with little unnecessary words, or your paragraphs with redundant sentences. Excess words in your sentences are like rocks on the road, preventing smooth, unfettered travel. But don’t worry about style or fine-tuning while you’re writing your first draft – just get your ideas down as quickly as you can. Once the whole story is roughed in, you can go back and start ferreting out words that don’t add to the meaning or imagery and are just hampering the fluid flow of ideas.

Also, look for anywhere you may be overwriting or beating a point to death. Say it once – effectively – and then move on. Twice, max. Otherwise you risk annoying your readers, who will say, “Yeah, I got it the first three times!”

In my editor's guide to writing compelling stories, Fire up Your Fiction, I offer lots of concrete tips with examples for streamlining your writing for a smoother flow and pacing.

Here are some examples from my editing of taking out unnecessary words that just clutter things up. As always, I’ve changed the names and details to provide anonymity for the writers.

 ~ Avoid little-word pile-ups and eliminate redundancies.

Take out the clutter to reveal the essence. Instead of “in spite of the fact that,” just say “although.” Instead of “in the vicinity of,” say “near.” Instead of “in the direction of,” say “to” or “toward.” Instead of “came in contact with” say “met.” Instead of “during the time that,” say “while.” No need to say “located at” – just say “at.”  

Before:
On their cross-country trip, they slept each night in the cheap motels located less than a mile’s drive from the interstate.  

After:
 On their cross-country trip, they slept each night in cheap motels just off the interstate.  

Before:
The car drove slowly through the large complex heading in the direction of a secluded building at the back of the facility. It was located on the shore of the Mississippi River. The vehicle came to a stop next to the entrance to the building.  

After:
 The car drove slowly through the large complex toward a secluded building on the shore of the Mississippi River. It stopped next to the entrance.  

Before:
He was shooting off his mouth in the bar last night telling everybody that he was going to find the bastard that ratted on him.  

After:
 He was shooting off his mouth in the bar last night about finding the bastard that ratted on him.

Before:
 He moved his mouse pointer over to the other email that he had received.  

After:
 He clicked on the second email.  

~ Don’t drown your readers in details.

Leave out those picky little details that just serve to distract the reader, who wonders for an instant why they’re there and if they’re significant:  

Before:
He had arrived at the vending machine and was punching the buttons on its front with an outstretched index finger when a voice from behind him broke him away from his thoughts.

After:
He was punching the buttons on the vending machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.

In the first example, we have way too much minute detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? And we don’t need to know which finger or that it’s outstretched. Everybody does it pretty much the same. Avoid having minute details like this that just clutter up your prose.  

Before:
An angular snarl stuck to his face, the officer indicated with a hand gesture a door that was behind and off to the right of Jason. He swung his head around to look in the direction the officer was pointing.  

After:
Snarling, the officer gestured to a door behind Jason. He turned to look behind him.

~ Take out empty, filler words like “It was,” “there was,” and “there were.”

Before:
I headed down a rickety set of wooden steps to the basement. There was a dim light ahead in the hallway. To the right there were cardboard boxes stacked high. To the left, there was a closed door with a padlock. Suddenly, I heard muffled sounds. There was someone upstairs. 

After:
I headed down a rickety set of wooden steps to the dimly lit basement. To the right cardboard boxes were stacked high. To the left, I saw a closed door with a padlock. Suddenly, I heard muffled sounds. Someone was upstairs. 

I could play around with this some more, but you get the picture. 

~ 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, so it’s less clunky and flows better. 

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.

~ Delete words or phrases that unnecessarily reinforce what’s already been said.

Before:
We passed an abandoned house that nobody lived in on a deserted street with no one around. The house was gray in color.

After:
We passed an abandoned gray house on a deserted street.

~ Don’t tell after you’ve shown.

She moped around the house, unable to concentrate on anything. She felt sad.

He paced nervously around the room, muttering to himself. He was agitated.

In both instances, the second sentence can and should be deleted. 

~ Condense any long-winded dialogue.

In everyday situations in real life, people don’t speak in lengthy, complete sentences and in uninterrupted monologues. Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural, not like a rehearsed speech.

Break up any blocks of one person speaking at length by rewriting it in questions and answers or a lively debate, with plenty of tension and attitude.

Use lots of incomplete sentences and one- or two-word answers, or even silences.

How would those characters actually speak in real life? In general, men, especially blue-collar men, tend to be terser and more to-the-point than women.

 
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.

17 comments:

  1. Thanks, Aymen! Seems I haven't quite left CFC yet - I feel like a college kid who keeps coming home for the holidays! If I just had more time, I'd move back home here permanently! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great advice. I was startled recently to see a "There was" construction in the opening paragraph of a mega-bestselling author's book. Occasionally, you can't write around such things, but we should always try.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In general, "there was" is just empty, wasted words. But bestselling authors can basically do whatever they want, since they're usually such good storytellers with so much buzz around them that their editors hesitate to offer too much advice, and readers don't care as long as the story is riveting.

      Delete
  3. Good stuff, Jodie.
    Deleting unneeded words is always a good thing.
    Great tips!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Tom!

      Delete
  4. Okay, writers who've been edited by Jodie... do you read through her examples looking for bits of your manuscripts?

    Jodie... great to see your here today, and great luck to you on your epic move!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Peg, I try to disguise the examples enough that the writers won't recognize them. Often I forget myself which book they came from! And of course I make up some of them. ;-)

      Delete
    2. Guilty as charged!

      Delete
  5. All the more reason to hire a good editor. As much as I go through my work, I still sometimes miss these little stinkers. We are, by nature, a wordy species. Cutting the fat take an expert eye :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Andrew, I think all serious writers need their work edited and proofread by someone else in the know before they publish. Even editors need editors for their own writing!

      Delete
  6. Timely post, Jodie. Slash and burn. I charge by the word and I tell authors they can save a bundle by doing the deleting in advance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Wendy. I charge by the word, too, and tell my prospective clients the same thing! And I rarely accept fiction manuscripts over 100K, as to me that indicates a writer who's too attached to his every word, and, unless they indicate otherwise, may not be willing to pare down overly wordy passages and lengthy descriptions and explanations.

      Delete
  7. Great post Jodie and great editing suggestions. Also the clutter-moving analogy rings very true as also about to move house, next week, so been chucking out the accumulated junk. Thanks and good moving.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks, Roland. And good luck with your decluttering and upcoming move!

    ReplyDelete
  9. So true. Although my first novel had two great editors, I ended up rewriting and republishing it this year to "declutter" it. I ended up culling about 5-6K words. I am also a better writer now than I was two years ago and it's great to hear the readers/fans say the same thing. And I believe that only comes with more writing experience, more books under your belts, and great editors.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Good for you, AD! You've got the right attitude for success as an author! :-)

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.