Friday, January 2, 2015

Tips For Tightening Up Your Writing

Writers more than almost anyone else are prone to go mad around the new year. We promise to write this, edit that, finish this project, and finally get around to publishing that one secret story we've never put to paper before. By and large the madness passes by the time Valentine's Day rolls around, and we get back to business.

Some resolutions are well-meaning though. A few of them are even necessary. If you made a resolution to sharpen your stories by tightening up your prose, let me hand you a whetstone.

The metaphors are mixed, but you get the thrust of it I'm sure.

Tip #1: Take Out Unnecessary Words

The kingdom of the novel is full of swooping paths that lead through mountains and caves, round huge lakes and across the seas. You can write however much you want, but many writers use this freedom as an excuse to create loose prose hung with extraneous words like a gypsy fortune-teller's baubles. While the loose, flowy prose is interesting, even engaging, it's all too easy to trip on the excess.

One of the best ways to eliminate roundabout writing full of phrases like I reached out my hand to take it is to write short fiction. I highly recommend everyone write at least some short fiction before taking on a novel because it teaches you to trim the fat and get to the point. If you only have 3k or 5k words to tell your story in you learn really damn quickly to cut out adverbs you don't need, and to remove instances of words like that, just, up, down, and others.

Words. Do. Not. Bleed.
Every writer has words that keep showing up in text which could easily be removed. For instance say you wrote, Terese sat down on the chair, sighed quietly to herself, and put down her book on the side table. A tighter, smoother sentence would read, Terese sat, sighed, and laid her book on the side table.

One sentence doesn't make a lot of difference to your overall word count, but if you go through your entire manuscript and trim the fat you'll see thousands of words vanish. You'll also notice your writing style is punchier, and easier to read.

Tip #2: Ask What This Scene Is Showing Us

Imagine for a moment that you were making a movie. You need to ask what every camera angle, every action scene, and every word of dialogue is telling your audience. For instance if there was a 5-minute scene in the middle of Casablanca where Rick played solitaire after he got drunk in the bar what would we get out of that? Does it act as a setting for a monologue? It is a statement on how he's desperate to do absolutely anything but face his lover's return? Or is it a waste of 5 minutes that would be better spent focusing on an actual aspect of the drama that's going on in the story?

This is why we scrapped the scenes with Legolas's kid sister.
This is one thing that books and movies share; if a scene has no purpose you need to cut it.

It can be hard sometimes to figure out if a scene has purpose, or if you're faffing about. For instance, does that scene with your lead catching coffee with her mom show us important things about how she was raised and the sort of relationship she has with a female role model, or was it just stuffed in there as a way to eat up word count? Is the action scene where your detective takes down a team of three bank robbers a gratuitous shootout, or does it illustrate the sort of man he is when lives are on the line and he has to do his job?

These aren't always easy calls to make, but your job is to tell the story. Does the story benefit from following your teenage monster hunter through every high school class every day of the week, or should we just skip to the part where she's tracking a werewolf on Wednesday afternoon while ditching Spanish III?

Tip #3: Listen To Your Beta Readers, and Kill Your Darlings

They'll never feel a thing.
Every author has beta readers (here are the 5 types every author should have). These are the men and women you trust to tell you if you got your facts right, if your characters are going off the rails, and if you've got holes in your plot. For some reason though when beta readers tell authors they should really get rid of a certain scene they flip their collective shit. They couldn't possibly get rid of the spunky kid sister, or cut out the long reminiscence about the lead's first ever sexual encounter. It's special... and important... and...

And I've got news for you; your word babies are no exception to the rules of good writing. Stories are stories, and if you put in a scene, plot twist, character, etc. that isn't passing muster it's your job to drum it out.

That doesn't mean you should immediately cut out a scene that you feel strongly about. You need to talk with your betas (or editors, or both) about why they feel this thing should be removed. Does the scene repeat an important point that's already been mentioned and thus comes across as unnecessary repetition? Is it just fan service in the event it's a pointless shoot out, sex scene, etc.? Is it offensive, a common complaint with profanity, violence, rape scenes, and other elements? You might decide to keep a scene even if it's been suggested you should delete it, but make sure you're doing it to remain true to the story and not because you have an attachment to that particular piece of prose.

Tip #4: Avoid Metaphor Vomit

This one is a warning based on my personal experience. Writing a great metaphor is a satisfying experience, but metaphors are the spice of your prose. If you use them too much then pretty soon you have one big symbolic mess that is difficult to make any sense out of.

A few solid metaphors are good. Make sure they're spread out so you have plenty of normal, easy-to-read text between them.

Hopefully you found this week's Literary Mercenary helpful. Good hunting to my fellow authors in 2015, and if you'd like to help support me drop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you catch all of my updates then follow me on Facebook and Tumblr as well!


  1. I concur, Neal. Nice article; It's good advice for writers new and (cough) old. One trick to mete out the fluff is to set your Microsoft Word's search and replace feature to call up every "ly" (adverb) in the manuscript. Then go through and get rid of 90% to 100% of them. Adverbs lull the writer into "tell, don't show," when it should be the other way around.

    1. TY, Anne, I will try the "ly" adverb search. I've become so anti adverb, I don't use them in my personal conversations. Mayhap a bit overboard, but they have become so offensive.

  2. Informative, ty. I will try and keep up with more helpful info thru the 2015. Literary Mercenary - love it.