Thursday, July 12, 2012

Toning Up Flabby Writing

by Leah Hultenschmidt, Senior Editor

In addition to getting ready for swimsuit season, summer is great time for writers to also think about taking the flab out of their work-in-progress. 

I think it’s fairly safe to say most writers know one of the best ways to hook readers is to keep up a riveting pace that makes it just about impossible to put down the book. And it really doesn’t matter whether your reader is a book buyer who just picked up your latest release from the store, or an editor you’re hoping will help put your book on the shelves. 

One way to keep that storyline moving forward is to follow one of my journalism professor’s favorite mantras: Omit needless words.  To me, tight writing really separates the consummate pros from the rest of the pack.

Some key points to look out for when going over your next draft:
  • Avoid explanatory dialogue – characters shouldn’t explain things they would obviously know just for the sake of the reader.  Find another way to include the information.
  • Don’t have your character say he’s going to do something and then describe him doing it.  Pick one.
  • Be wary of a lot of gazing. It’s not very action-oriented. Most readers will follow the story without it.
  • Consider each adjective carefully. Take out any that mean the same thing.  “The arid, dry desert” is triply redundant. 
  • Simplify as much as possible.  I can’t tell you many times I’ve changed “She moved her head up and down in agreement” to “She nodded.”
  • Avoid adverbs after dialogue tags.  “I’m sorry,” he said contritely.  The words themselves should express how they’re conveyed.  I credit Stephen King’s On Writing for hammering this one home.
  • Avoid dialogue tags that repeat the words just said.  “I’m sorry,” he apologized. Or “I agree,” he concurred.  Really, “said” is just fine.
  • Only use self-reflective words such as “own,” as in “her own,” and “himself/herself/myself/etc.” if needed for clarity.  Most sentences can read just as well without them.
  • Be sparing with “literally.”  Something literal should also have a figurative counterpart.  And it means the character is actually doing what you’re describing.
     
    What are some of your favorite tips or pet peeves in writing?

28 comments:

  1. I am going to print this and read it often. Very good tips. Thanks, Amelia

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  2. Mine is starting out sentences with And, But, Though. :)

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  3. Lovely hints. It would be great if this could transfer over to some of the self-pub people who seem to be in need of an editor...and, I don't know, Stephen King has gotten awfully long-winded himself in later years!

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  4. Amelia, so glad you found it useful!

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  5. Terry - I am so guilty of Ands, Buts, and Thoughs. Especially in cover copy. Oh, I hope "especially" is ok. ;-)

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  6. Elf, I hear you! I know a lot of self-pub writers get professionally edited, though, so fingers crossed!

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  7. Leah,
    What Amelia said!
    Printing and checkin' the list when I proof read!

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  8. Hi Leah,

    Great tips! I'll keep all those in mind while writing Book 3. ;)

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  9. Great tips - can't wait to share! Many thanks :-)

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  10. Great tips, Leah. I'll be sure to share.

    Raven

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  11. While I'm sleeping, some evil djinn comes around and lards up my prose with just, very and that. The same pernicious force is prone to suddenly, finally, merely, simply, and--who writes this stuff, Grace?!--putting speech before action.

    Then there's passive voice, which is used by you know who. Don't forget lack of a clear antecedents for pronouns, and use of a progressive tense when a simple tense would do...

    It's a wonder I'm published. My copy ed is going to straight to heaven...

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  12. Great reminders. One of my favorite things about writing is cutting the flab off the first draft. Tight word count requirements make it even more fun. :)

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  13. Just...a worthless word that I have to hunt down and kill on a regular basis. Thanks for tips, my WIP is sweating it out in editing bootcamp and any tips for toning are much appreciated :)

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  14. Spectacular list. I'm about to (thinking about starting to...) do a slash and burn on my WIP. Couldn't have come my way at a better moment. Nodding my head up and down in agreement as I say "Yes, that!"

    Thanks!

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  15. I've cut and pasted these great tips into a word file. Thanks, Leah!!! :)

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  16. Excellent post, this one is a keeper. Going to copy and save for future reference.

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  17. This is so concise and yes, printable! I'm going to direct my authors to this post. It backs up everything I keep telling them, but maybe they'll believe it now! LOL

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  18. You've touched on a lot of my pet peeves. I've also learned over the years many of my "that"s are not necessary. If I haven't written a restrictive clause, I cut it.

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  19. Awesome advice! Thanks for the post.

    BTW - I just finished reading Goddess in the Middle (Arc from Sourcebooks Casablanca). It was awesome! I could totally tell that she kept these tips in mind while revising! ;)

    (FYI to the blog owner: The captchas are REALLY hard to make out to leave a comment!)

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  20. My pet peeves? Unnecessary JUSTs and THATs - both of which I'm eradicating from my own manuscript right now!

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  21. Leah, this one's a real keeper. Thanks for posting!

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  22. Nice one, Leah, you're a credit to your profession! Two of my pet peeves are over-used sentence fragments and one sentence paragraphs.
    Repeatedly.
    One after another.
    In a long string.
    Till the pace bounces to a halt.

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  23. Carolyn, Tracey, Mary, Lea & Sheila - yay! Glad you find these useful.

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  24. Grace - I think those same elves visit in the night and muck up my cover copy.

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  25. Barbara - holy crow, good to see you! It's been a while...

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  26. Great tips, especially simplifying your prose. I especially loathe "he thought to himself." Why not just say "he thought?"

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  27. Great tips, especially simplifying the prose. I especially loathe "he thought to himself." Why not just say "he thought?"

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  28. You had me at the naked man chest, but fabulous advice, Leah!

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