I’m proud to call Lois Winston my friend. She’s nothing if not forthright and honest, plus she’s a darn good writer. Please welcome Lois Winston to The Five Scribes as she shares writing information you can take to the bank. ~ Donnell
You’ve gotten to the end of your manuscript. What a sense of accomplishment to type THE END. After months or maybe years of labor, your baby is ready to leave its cozy Microsoft or Apple womb and fly off to that “A” List of agents and/or editors.
Then the rejection letters start arriving, and each one mentions that the writing isn’t “tight” enough. You scratch your head. What does that mean? Tight writing is key to attracting the attention of an editor or agent. Verbose writing will lead to rejection letters, and you want to do everything you can to prevent receiving one of those.
So before you start sending baby out into the world, you want to make sure she’s not a porker bloated by excess wordage that drags down your pacing and bores the very people you want to impress. You want your manuscript lean, your writing crisp and succinct to stand out and catch the eye of that A list editor or agent. You need to put your baby on a word diet to shed that excess word weight. Here’s how you do it:
STEP ONE: Reread your manuscript. Is every scene essential to the plot or the goals, motivations, and conflicts of your characters? Does each scene advance the plot or tell the reader something she needs to know about the characters? If not, the scene is filler, and no matter how much you love what you wrote, you need to get rid of it. Each scene must serve a purpose. No purpose? No scene. Yes, I know it hurts. So instead of hitting the “delete” key, cut and paste the scene to a LOQUACIOUS BLUBBER file. You may be able to use it in a future manuscript.
STEP TWO: Repeat STEP ONE for all dialogue. If the dialogue is nothing but chit-chat which neither advances the plot nor tells the reader something essential about the characters, exile it to the LOQUACIOUS BLUBBER file.
STEP THREE: Do a search of “ly” words. You don’t have to omit all adverbs, but wherever possible, substitute a more active, descriptive verb to replace your existing verb and the adverb that modifies it.
Blubber: Joe walked purposefully across the room.
Tight: Joe strode across he room.
You’ve revised a mediocre sentence into a more visually active one.
STEP FOUR: Instead of using many adjectives to describe a noun, use one all-encompassing adjective or a more descriptive noun. Although every word in the English language can be used in your manuscripts, there are some words that are overused by authors and should either be avoided altogether or used as little as possible. For most of these words a more descriptive noun or verb would go a long way to improving the sentence. Also, if certain information isn’t necessary to your story, omit it.
Blubber: Elizabeth grew up in an old, large house with twenty rooms that sat on four acres of land.
Tight: Elizabeth grew up in a Victorian mansion.
Or: Elizabeth grew up on an estate.
You’ve tightened the sentence without sacrificing any of the pertinent information. And unless the home where Elizabeth grew up plays a pivotal role in the story, you really don’t need to go into excessive description of it. This is one of the major mistakes authors make -- describing all sorts of things that are unimportant to the story. Describing only that which is essential to the story makes for tight writing. Laundry lists pull the reader from your story. Better to weave the descriptive elements in unobtrusively over the course of the narrative. Don’t bog the reader down with all sorts of unimportant details that have no bearing on your story. It will lead to a swift rejection.
STEP FIVE: Say it once, then move on. It’s not necessary to repeat an idea or image in different words in the next sentence, the next paragraph, or on the next page. You don’t need to beat your reader over the head. She’s intelligent enough to “get it” the first time she reads it, and that goes for editors and agents, too.
Blubber: A kettle drum pounded inside Elizabeth’s head. Her temples throbbed. Her scull pulsated with pain.
We got it the first time. Don’t be redundant. All you need to write is:
Tight: A kettle drum pounded inside Elizabeth’s head.
STEP SIX: Identify needless words and eliminate them. Every writer has at least one or two pet word she overuses.
Blubber: Elizabeth just wanted to get to know Joe better before she dated him.
Words like just are killers. Search your manuscript and get rid of as many as possible. Most of the time that word is totally unnecessary. Just is one of those words.
Tight: Elizabeth wanted to know Joe better before she dated him.
And why do you need to get to know when to get is superfluous? Get rid of it.
STEP SEVEN: Avoid laundry list descriptions by substituting more descriptive nouns and adjectives.
Blubber: Joe wore a blue and green plaid threadbare shirt with a missing button at the cuff and a pair of frayed black jeans torn below the knees.
Tight: Joe wore Salvation Army rejects.
Both sentences paint a picture of Joe for the reader, but with the tight sentence you’ve saved 22 words and written a much more interesting sentence without sacrificing anything.
STEP EIGHT: Do a search for was. Wherever it’s linked with an ing verb, omit the was and change the tense of the verb.
Blubber: Elizabeth was listening to Joe.
Tight: Elizabeth listened to Joe.
STEP NINE: Choose more descriptive verbs and omit the additional words that enhance the verb.
Blubber: Joe walked with a swaggering gait.
Tight: Joe swaggered.
Both sentences say the same thing, but the second is tighter.
STEP TEN: Omit extraneous tag lines. If it’s obvious which character is speaking, a tag line is unnecessary. Use tag lines only when there are three or more characters taking part in the dialogue scene.
Blubber: Joe turned to face Elizabeth. “You don’t understand,” he said.
Tight: Joe turned to face Elizabeth. “You don’t understand.”
It’s obvious that Joe is speaking to Elizabeth, so adding the tag is redundant and unnecessary, and when you add lots of redundant and unnecessary words, you give the editor or agent a reason to reject your manuscript.
STEP ELEVEN: Show, don’t tell. Wherever possible, you want to “show” your story through dialogue and active narrative, rather than “telling” the story.
Telling: Elizabeth felt happy.
Showing: (through dialogue) “I’m as happy as a pig in mud!”
(through active narrative) Elizabeth clapped her hands and bounced on the balls of her feet.
STEP TWELVE: Let your character’s words convey her emotion, not the tag line. Also, keep to the unobtrusive said in tags. You can’t grimace, laugh or sigh dialogue. The character can grimace, laugh, or sigh before or afterward but not while speaking.
Wrong: “John, you are such a dork,” sighed Elizabeth.
Right: Elizabeth sighed. “You are such a dork.”
STEP THIRTEEN: Avoid non-specific words like it and thing. Whatever the it or thing is, it has a name. Use it.
STEP FOURTEEN: Describe body movements only when they’re essential to the scene. Don’t break up dialogue every other sentence by having your characters shrug, smirk, giggle, glance, nod, or drum their fingers. This grows old very fast and will begin to grate on the editor/agent’s nerves. One rule of thumb is to describe only those things about a character that the POV character would remember 20 minutes later. Don’t throw in body movement as filler.
STEP FIFTEEN: Don’t fill dialogue with interjections. We might have the bad habit of peppering our speech with well and like but having a character constantly adding those words makes for lousy dialogue.
Wrong: “Well, uhm, like I said,” said Joe. “I had to do it, you know?”
Dialogue like that is dialogue no editor or agent wants to read.
Lois Winston is an award-winning author and designer as well as an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. Her latest book, ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY GLUE GUN (January 2011), the first book in her Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Visit Lois at http://www.loiswinston.com and Anastasia at http://www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com .