Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Writing Tips: Wasted Words
Some of my readers are likely aware that I taught English for 34 years. Others may know that I've been a freelance editor for 17 years. In all of that time, I've read a lot--school papers, manuscripts, and published books. Through all of that reading, I've tried to not only be a critic--yes, that is what English teachers and editors do--but also to improve my own writing skills, based on the lessons I've learned in the process.
During the second week of each month, I will put on my teacher hat for this blog. Sometimes I will teach readers writing tips I have learned. Other weeks I'll share tips to help you better readers. The truth is, this information is actually one in the same. If you are a critical and discerning reader, you should be able to transfer those skills to your writing as well, improving your final product.
This week I've been spending a great deal of time editing--both for myself and for clients, which has helped me choose my topic:
Writing Tip #1: Wasted Words
During the initial drafting process, writers often shoot for a word count target. This is especially true if we are participating in a challenge such as NaNoWriMo or Word Wars with our Twitter friends. The higher the number of words we write in a given time frame, the better. We do everything we can to win the battle, collecting lots of wasted words along the way, all in the effort to have the largest word count when the match is done.
But by the time we are ready to revise and edit, we realize that many of those precious words we wrote in the struggle to reach our goals need to go away if we want our manuscript to be worthy of publication.
I'm as guilty of wasting words as anyone. It's easy to fall into the trap of a favorite phrase that clutters my writing. I lost track of how many times I had to remove the phrase "a bit" from one of my manuscripts, but that's not the only phrase I've been guilty of using. I've learned to keep a "watch list" during my own editing process, and the search function has helped me get rid of the over-use of certain words.
But overuse is not the only way an author can waste words. Sometimes we use words to "warm up" to what we really want to say, as fillers when we aren't sure what we want to say, or because of habits we have picked up as we speak, which we let stray into our writing. Here are a few examples:
"And with that" -- Writers add this phrase while drafting when they want to move a character from place to place, instead of just moving them. Almost every time it draws the reader out of the point of view character and into the thoughts of a narrator using the author's voice. Remove this phrase and show us the action to strengthen your scene.
"Up" -- It's amazing how many times this little word can be added when it's not necessary. Rose up, sat up, and stood up are just a few examples. Search for "up" and read the sentence without it. If the sentence makes sense, omit the word, or better yet, find a way to strengthen the verb.
"Thought to himself" -- Everyone is guilty of this one, but if you stop to think about it, the phrase is sort of silly. Who else would you think to? Unless you're a backwards mind reader, there is no way you can think to anyone other than yourself. Delete "to himself."
"Small / Large" -- We often add these words, thinking they help a reader determine size, but unless you specifically give sometime to compare the item to these qualifiers don't add anything to the description. "A small man" could describe any man without another man to compare him to. Is he under 5' tall? Or is he simply a couple of inches shorter than Michael Jordan? If you want to see how meaningless these words become, pick up a copy of Brian's Winter by Gary Paulsen and read, looking especially for the word "small." I love the story, but it becomes laughable when you hit the section where he uses small something like ten times in a half a page.
"Well / Um" -- These words are wasted in conversation, and they are even more wasted in written text. Find another, better way to show hesitancy in a character's speech.
Look over your own work in progress this week and make note of wasted words. Do a search and see how many you can delete. Do you notice an improvement in the quality of your writing? Continue to build your list, make every word count, and you will see improvement as you write.
One word of warning--you'll also start to see other people's wasted words as you read. This can be good if you add their words to your editing list to avoid in your own writing, but it may also drive you crazy as you realize some of your favorite authors could have been so much better if they'd only learned not to waste words.