Positive Writer

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6 Quick Tricks to Help You Tighten Up Your Writing

Note: This is a post by C. S. Lakin, she is a multipublished novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar.

Writers often think about tightening their writing. Just what does that mean? And how is it done? Is there a way that writers can tighten up their writing without losing their voice or compromising their writing style?

tighten-up-your-writing

Like sneaky calories, many unwanted words and phrases find their way into our writing unnoticed and bog it down. The goal should be to write in a concise fashion so that our meaning is clearly understood. It’s not all that tricky to do. And don’t worry—this can be done without adversely cramping a writer’s style.

That’s not to say these tips are a cure-all for major flaws in a story, article, or book. But similar to the get-in-shape-fast programs, here are some simple things writers can do to tighten sentences, shed unwanted words, and tone and shape the whole “body” of work.

1) Eliminate fatty words from your “diet.” Make a list of your weasel words. Those are the words you throw in out of habit. Often they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to. Grab a random page of your document and see if you can eliminate at least one or two words from every sentence. It may not be possible, but it’s a good exercise. If the word doesn’t add importance to a sentence, it should go. Then attack the rest of your novel.

2) Reword passive voice where possible. Whether referring to general passive (“The food was eaten by me” instead of “I ate the food”) or present progressive passive (“The food is being served” instead of “the waiters served the food”), most of the time a sentence will be stronger if the passive voice is avoided. An easy way to seek and destroy unwanted passive construction is do a “Find” for ing, was, is, it was, and there was, to name a few.

3) Avoid circumlocution. I just love that word, so I have to use it. Don’t use two words when one will do. Don’t use four when three will do. If two adjectives are similar, pick the best one and toss the other.

4) Ditch the extraneous speaker and narrative tags. If you are writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, you may have dialog in your piece. Be aware that if the reader knows who is speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over—especially in a scene with only two characters. And remove all those flowery verbs that stick out, such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected. Just use said and asked, and maybe an occasional replied or answered. Really. Less is more . . . effective.

5) Search and destroy repetition. We tend to repeat words, phrases, or ideas in the same paragraph. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do, to drive home a point, perhaps in summary at the end of a section or subheading. But writers often try to say the same thing in a different way, and instead of adding new material they are essentially rehashing what they’ve already said. One great way to catch those repetitive words is to hear your piece read aloud using a  software program like Natural Reader.

6) And a word about backstory . . . Yes, the dreaded backstory, which novelists have been told to shun in the first chapters of a novel. But really, do you need it? Take a look at all the places you have backstory and boil down just a few lines of the most important information you feel the reader must know to “get” the story. Then see if you can have a character either think or say these things instead of going into lengthy narrative. Look for any passage that feels like author intrusion or an info dump and find another way to impart the information.

If you’re the kind of writer that needs to “add weight” to your skimpy book, you have a different challenge, and the problem won’t be solved by ignoring all the above tips. Remember, it’s the unwanted fat you want to eliminate. Be sure what you add to a skimpy novel is muscle, not fat.

And for the rest of us who overwrite, be reassured that by implementing these easy tips, you can help trim those unwanted “pounds” from your pages and tighten up your writing.

Did you find this post helpful? Share in the comments.

About C.S. Lakin

I’m a novelist, a copyeditor, a writing coach, a mom, a backpacker, and a whole bunch of other things. Connect with me on my blog at Live Write Thrive and on Twitter.

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Writer's Doubt the Book
  • Minkee Robinson

    Thanks! This post is a ‘keeper’ that I’ll refer back to as I revise my collection of short stories for submission.

  • Dean K Miller

    Great reminders, especially when stymied in the revision phase and looking for a new approach to skim the fat. Thanks.

  • http://www.annepeterson.com/ Anne Peterson

    Great post. Very informative. I can see areas I need to tighten up my writing. Thanks.

  • Katina

    I sure can improve…a lot! I begin with a page and end up with half! Thanks for reminding me!

  • http://www.thewritingrealm.com/ Alicia Rades

    I like #6. I’ve been working on figuring out the best way to introduce my characters and incorporate back story without boring readers. I think I’m getting better at it.

    • Susanne Lakin

      Hi Alicia, one recommendation I give many of my editing clients is to use a yellow highlighter in books they really love and feel are written well. Highlight the lines that are bits of backstory and explanation, then examine just where and how much that has been sprinkled into the story. You can learn a lot of technique by doing that.

  • James Pailly

    I’m going through a bit of an argument with a fellow writer over #4. She wants me to avoid using the word “said,” replacing it with words like “responded,” “speculated,” or “declared.”

    • Susanne Lakin

      Every once is a while a different verb for a speaker tag is effective and powerful, but the consensus among great writers and writing instructors is to make the speaker tag invisible so it doesn’t detract from what is being said.

  • CC Dailly

    I really like these succinct reminders. They really help! Thanks! CC

  • Penelope Silvers

    Thanks, CS! Circumlocution. That word jumped out at me like a big, fat furry spider. Big words just float my boat and I have to be careful when pulling them out in my novel. Three instead of four. Two instead of three. It ain’t easy! ;)

    • Susanne Lakin

      I have the same problem. I like to over-explain. It seems counter intuitive to think less is more but it usually is, and more effective.

  • Susanne Lakin

    Thanks for the comments and I hope these tips will help everyone “tighten up”!

    • http://www.positivewriter.com/ Bryan Hutchinson

      Thanks for your post, Susanne. It’s great having you!