Tips To Tighten Our Writing

www.suecoletta.com/tips-to-tighten-our-writingIn a previous post I talked about Show, Don’t Tell in the narrative. Today, I’d like to expand on that as well as show a few ways to tighten our writing. Hopefully, you’ll find it useful in your work. I’m one of those crazy people who enjoy editing. Once we learn what to look for, it doesn’t seem as labor intensive.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and dig in.

In a first draft it’s easy to have long, unbroken passages of exposition, narration, and dialogue. But, believe it or not, that’s a form of telling and/or info. dumping. To avoid this, try to break those passages with action, conflict, body language, and subtext.

A couple of examples are…

Add sensory details

This is one of my favorite things to do. Nothing gets the reader more immersed in our stories than to let them feel the scene by triggering their senses. Sight is the most used sense. We’re visual creatures. To add to the image try utilizing the other senses too: touch, taste, smell, hear. The Emotional Thesaurus is a fantastic resource for this.

Analogies and metaphors

Love them! Anyone who’s read an ARC of Marred can tell you I load my stories with them. To me, nothing paints a better picture than using analogies and metaphors. Here’s the trick. When choosing what to compare I match the analogy/metaphor to the scene. For instance, if I’m writing a dark scene, I’ll relate it to death or danger in some way. If I’m writing a lighter scene, I might relate it something spiritual, loving, humorous, nature, animals…anything that will capture the scene more vividly.

Examples:

He shuddered like someone was dancing on his grave.

You might think “was dancing” is passive voice, but it’s not. The action is still happening. For a more in-depth look at passive voice check out Passive Voice Unmasked!

The morning sun reached through the window with spear-like fingers as if God himself nudged me awake.

The fat woman climbed on the bar stool the way cowboys straddled a horse.

Writing Tics & Filler Words

We all have them. When I go through my first draft I’m amazed at how many litter my manuscript. To tighten our writing we need to cut the fluff. Here a few words to avoid:

Just

That

So

Little

Of

Up

Down

And (at the beginning of a sentence)

But

Want

Came/Went

Well

Really

Very

Had

Let’s break it down.

Just

This word almost always can be avoided.

Example: I just wanted to try it.

Better: I wanted to try it.

Best: I yearned to try ___________ (be specific about the action).

Of course, “try” isn’t the best word, either. Our characters should do, not try.

That

This word creeps in when you least suspect it. At least for me it does. Often times it can be deleted without any harm to the sentence.

Example: I knew that he told her I was unfaithful.

Better: I knew he told her I was unfaithful.

Best: He told her I was unfaithful. (<- stay in deep POV. “Knew” is a telling word.)

So (at the beginning of a sentence)

Instead of: So, this man glared at me with volcanic eyes.

Try:  He glared at me with volcanic eyes.

Little

By itself there’s nothing wrong with the word, but it’s always better to be specific.

Instead of: He owned these little cameras he could hide anywhere.

Try: He owned tiny cameras he could hide anywhere.

Or: He owned miniscule cameras he could hide anywhere.

Of

This once took a while to master. The way I determine if it’s needed or not is by reading the sentence with and without it. Does the sentence still make sense, or does it sound odd?

Example: She bolted out of the door and across the road.

Try: She bolted out the door and across the road.

Example: The cat traveled inside of a carrier.

Try: The cat traveled inside a carrier.

Up (with certain actions)

Example: He rose up from the table.

Try: He rose from the table.

Example: He stood up.

Try: He stood.

Down

Same here. Down is not needed with certain actions.

Example: He sat down.

Try: He sat.

We all know how to sit. There’s no need for “down.”

Example: He glanced down at the floor.

We know the floor is “down.”

Better: He glanced at the floor.

Or: He hung his head (if he moved his whole head and not only his eyes).

And (at the beginning of a sentence)

Admittedly, this one I had a hard time letting go of. I’m not saying we should never use “and.” Perish the thought. Try to delete most of them, though, and see how much tighter the sentence becomes.

Example: And he was the most caring man I’d ever met.

Try: He was the most caring man I’d ever met.

But

This isn’t always possible to delete, either. Most times, however, you can delete “but” at the start of a sentence and where you can break sentences into two.

Instead of: My wife loves cats, but I prefer dogs.

Try: My wife loves cats. I prefer dogs.

Want(ed)

Want is a telling word. It needs to go.

Example: I wanted the chocolate cake.

Better: I drooled over the chocolate cake.

Sometimes we need to add a few words to help create a better image.

Best: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?

As you can see, the last example immerses the reader in the story. Remain in your character’s POV at all times.

Came/Went

There are tons of ways of to avoid came/went. Be specific.

Example: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream. (boring!)

Better: I shuffled to Marco’s General Store to buy butter almond pecan ice cream, my favorite.

Best: After shuffling to Marco’s General Store, I hoarded the butter almond pecan ice cream and swatted a hand at whoever neared.

In the last example it’s obvious this character loves butter almond pecan ice cream. We don’t need to tell our reader it’s her favorite.

Well

Delete and it will have no effect on the sentence. I believe a few in dialogue are okay (sporadically), though my editor might disagree.  *awkward smile*

Really

Example: The elephant’s trunk was really big.

Try: The elephant’s trunk was enormous.

Very

Example: The muscle-bound man was very strong.

Try: The muscle-bound man could lift a Volkswagen over his head.

Had

Often times we can delete “had” and still remain in the correct tense. Too many had words give the reader the impression the action took place prior to the story we’re telling. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.

Example: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.

Try: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never moved.

If you’ve read the previous post, you might remember the deep POV words to avoid. Here’s a quick recap:

Believed

Thought

Knew

Remembered

Recalled

Wished

Wondered

Words that “tell” rather than show.

Search for the following words and substitute another verb to make the action stronger.

Move

Try: sashayed, strutted, sauntered, ambled, scuttled, bustled…

Push

Try: shoved, slammed, heaved, etc…

Pull

Try: yanked, tugged, etc…

Brought

Try: carried, delivered, etc…

Avoid prepositional phrases

To her

At him

For her

At the end of a sentence these phrases are implied. In deep POV the reader knows who’s narrating. End the sentence on a power word. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but I try to change as many as I can without compromising the overall effect.

Example: Seeing him today proved what a complete distraction he was to her.

Better: Seeing him today proved what a complete distraction he was.

Best: Seeing him today proved he was still a complete distraction.

The last example ends on a power word.

Instead of: She stared in speechless dismay at him.

Try: She stared in speechless dismay.

www.suecoletta.com/tips-to-tighten-our-writing

Hope this helps! I’m off to continue my edits for Wings of Mayhem.

 

**To republish this post, please contact me for an updated bio (see About.me page), or use the reblog button in the sharing bar. Thanks!

 

 

 

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is a multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter.

23 Comments

  1. Great article. I especially liked the list of words to avoide: I am guilty of using them. Half of my first revisions consint in getting rid of them 🙁
    JazzFeathers recently posted…Thursday Quotables – MammarellaMy Profile

  2. Great article. I especially liked the list of words to avoide: I am guilty of using them. Half of my first revisions consints in getting rid of them 🙁
    JazzFeathers recently posted…Thursday Quotables – MammarellaMy Profile

  3. Great post. Very useful. Thanks.

  4. Awesome post, Sue. Thanks for the reminders. I try to catch more of these every time I go through a revision, but some always slip through. Sneaky buggers!
    JHolmes, author recently posted…Autumn in WritersvilleMy Profile

  5. Excellent one, Sue. I think it is almost invariably beneficial to remove any word that might be superfluous. I like the ‘sensory’ point, too. A short sentence that mentions fresh coffee, freshly baked bread, petrol…have the reader smell them. Smell is such an unexpectedly powerful emotion, it draws the reader further into the story straightaway.
    Mick Canning recently posted…Where has everyone gone?My Profile

    • Thanks, Mick. You’re right. Smell is so powerful. Which is why I like to relate a certain aroma to a secondary character, like the woman who always wears Shalimar or the man who douses himself in Old Spice. One whiff and there’s no question who’s joining the conversation.

  6. Another wonderful resource, and great examples of “filter” words to be avoided. I’m actually compiling a list of nice “beats” (sensory descriptions to break a dialogue into smaller chunks), and couldn’t agree more as to their value!
    Nicholas C. Rossis recently posted…Creepy Things Kids Have SaidMy Profile

  7. Great points. I keep a living document for editing purposes. The word searches are maddening, but necessary. I also need to refollow again. I’m only finding you via Goodreads these days.

    • Huh? Was that on my end? At least Goodreads shows my posts. 😉 Perhaps that will fix the comment thing too. I’ve noticed the ones who follow by WP.com have no problem commenting, and then I’d be in your reader too. “Living document.” I keep forgetting that term. Yes, so do I. Nothing’s easier than a quick search for keywords, but I hate when Word flips me off with, “Whoa. You use that a lot!”

  8. Sue, this is so helpful! It’s such a good post – I think it belongs in a tip on a guide to self-editing. Whadda ya say? The only flaw I found in this post is that God is apparently not a he. She’s a she. I’ve been reminded of that many times 😉
    Garry Rodgers recently posted…WHAT’S YOUR MYERS-BRIGGS PERSONALITY TYPE?My Profile

  9. This is so helpful, Sue! I think that’s part of why revising is so extremely important. That’s where we catch those parts of our writing that are ‘flabby.’ It’s where we get a sense of how much the story really carries people away, or whether they’ll drown in too much verbiage, if I can put it that way.
    Margot Kinberg recently posted…That is All I Have Left to Say*My Profile

    • That makes total sense, Margot. I always find it’s easier to use a list and search for keywords that tend to drag my writing, which is why I thought I’d share. I’m so glad you found it useful.

  10. Fascinating stuff! Just off to edit tomorrow’s review now. Sorry, that should be…

    Off now to edit tomorrow’s review.

    Better? 😉
    FictionFan recently posted…Atmosphere of Hope: The Search for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim FlanneryMy Profile

  11. As I frequently do with your posts, I bookmarked this one. I’m editing now and while my editor and I don’t always agree…sometimes he’s right and sometimes I am.

  12. Such a helpful post! “Of” is one of those killer words for me. I always want to insert it, then end up tripping over it in re-reads. I really like your break down for so many of the filler words that litter early drafts.

    Someone in my writing group mentioned The Emotion Thesaurus at one of our meetings, and I grabbed it a while back. Great writer’s helper. I think they have a whole series out. Nice to see it mentioned here 🙂
    Mae Clair recently posted…Myth and Magic by Mae Clair on Bestseller Lists of Amazon and B&NMy Profile

    • “Of” trips me up all the time, too, Mae. Yes, I love the Emotional Thesaurus and it’s appendages for those time when I totally draw a blank. Have your feet touched the ground yet? I hope not. 🙂

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