Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Write Tight: 15-Steps to Avoid Overwriting

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 and Anastasia at .


Caridad Pineiro said...

Thanks for some great advice!

Annette Gallant said...

Great advice, Lois! I'm going to print this off and keep it beside me as I revise my current WIP.

Lois Winston said...

So glad you found the advice helpful, Caridad and Annette. Thanks for posting.

Linda said...

Uh oh. Raise hand. Guilty. Maybe it's a southern thing?
Linda Burke

Donnell said...

Lois, this is great information. If someone tells you your pacing is off, it most likely will be one of these 15 problems. I appreciate you being here today.

jbarbieri said...

Excellent advice and truly appreciated. Like Annette, worth printing off and always having it on hand as a reminder. Thank you once again Lois for your insight.

Nickie Asher said...

So guilty of the dreaded laundry list...even why I try not to. Great post.

Kathye Quick said...

guilty of some of these. Thanks for the refresher

Kristi said...

Brilliant! I didn't realize I had a blindspot -- I use the word "just" constantly! Argh! Thanks so much.

Veldane said...

Nice advice, I do try to practice tight writing.. but I do run descriptive.. that is why I start with long-hand and revise, revise, revise as I go. =)

Kathleen Kaska said...

No matter how much we write, reading these reminders brings us back to the basics. Thanks for sharing.

Lee Lofland said...

Great information, Lois. I'm curious. Do you find yourself being overly critical of your own writing since you're also an agent?

Ricki Schultz said...

Love this!! Thanks for a great list!

I get a little worried I write TOO tight sometimes. Thoughts on how to overcome this?

Ellis Vidler said...

Good advice, Lois. A nice reminder of things to watch for.

Carolyn Wright said...

Lois I'm printing this off - it's my new check list as I revise.

Carolyn Wright said...

Thanks Lois I'm printing this - it's my new check list as I revise.

Michele Drier said...

Lois, these are great tips! Thanks for putting them so concisly.

Autumn Jordon said...

Great list, Lois. I'm soon heading into edits again and this is a great refresher!

Lois Winston said...

Wow! Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I'm glad you all found the blog useful.

Lee, I'm very critical of my own writing. It makes first drafts very hard because I want to sit and polish each sentence until it's the best it can be. I have to force myself to keep writing, then go back and polish in subsequent drafts.

Ricki, I tend to write dialogue first, then go back and add in layering and texture to my scenes. It's often a tricky balance between too little and too much. Every scene needs to advance the story, but you also need to create well-rounded characters who are more than just talking heads doing what needs doing.

Polly said...

Excellent advice, Lois. Worth printing out. One other thing that stops me is when a writer uses a simile or metaphor that sounds like she's trying too hard to be original. That takes me right out of the story.

Cara Marsi said...

This is great information. Thanks for sharing.

Lois Winston said...

Polly, similes and metaphors should always be used judiciously. A little goes a long way. I see too many authors who use them in every other paragraph, and it grows old fast, especially when they're cliches.

Vince said...

Hi Lois:

I loved this post! I thought your book was “Write Tight: 15-Steps to Avoid Overwriting” and as I read, I wondered: "is she going to give away her whole book?" (You have an outline for a complete book here.)

I’ve already pasted this article at the front of my WIP as if it were a prologue. I can’t forget it now!

BTW: Mistake #13 really bugs me when I am reading a story. I think this is the most common mistake otherwise good authors make. The author knows good and well what the ‘it’ refers to, but I’m not sure, so I have to read the sentence again. This happened the other day and the ‘it’ could have been two different things and it made a difference. This really pulled me out of the story.

Tight writing has a price in a way. I can usually tell ‘who did it’ within a few minutes of a tv mystery or police show by how much it cost to shoot the opening scenes. If they are going to spend money hiring a brother-in-law, he’s either a red herring or he did it. Sometimes I can tell my wife who did it before the first station break. She insists that I could not possible know who did it yet I am very often right.

Just pretend you have to pay $5 a word in a manuscript tax: that would give new meaning to 'tight'.


vergehiggins said...

Great article, Lois!

Donnell said...

Vince.... ssshhhhh. I can see a publishing house taking your post and running with it. Charging us for every word. That would make us write tight, now wouldn't it! ;)

Lois Winston said...

Vince, my measure of a good mystery -- whether a book, TV show or movie -- is one that surprises me with whodunnit. I, too, can usually figure out the killer very early on. It drives my husband crazy. I absolutely loved the season ending episode of Castle Monday night because I never saw it coming.

June Shaw said...

Fantasic help.Thanks, Lois!

Vince said...

Hi Lois:

I can’t believe you wrote this:

“I absolutely loved the season ending episode of Castle Monday night because I never saw it coming.”

When I saw this ending of Castle, I told my wife: “This ending is illegal! There is an unwritten law in mysteries that you can’t have the investigating officer be the guilty party.”

Are we going to learn next that Castle killed her father? : )


Ricki Schultz said...

Lois, that is how I write as well! I suppose the longer I do it and the more I do it (write), I'll strike that balance.

Thanks again for a great post. :)

Jackie King said...

Thanks for the advice.
Jackie King

Lois Winston said...

Never heard that unwritten law, Vince. Even so, Roy wasn't the investigating officer. I did have a theory about who the third cop was, but it was one of the few times I've been wrong. Yes, it does happen occasionally. ;-)

Vince said...

Hi Lois:

I know it (a violation of the unwritten law) was not an exact fit. But he (Beckett's boss) was in change of the investigation. Other than this one show, I don’t think there was any foundation laid. That’s why it was such a surprise. The author was not playing fair with the viewers.

(Of course, since I read this in a mystery writing book, it may not really be an unwritten law – except that the writing book did not make the law, it was just reporting on it.)

Imagine if Sherlock Holmes, Colombo, Rockford, Poirot, or any other famous detective did the murder. Imagine that no foundation was laid. How fair would that be. I’ve read in writing books that if you write this plot it will be rejected.

The Castle case was not clear cut but I think it qualifies as a corollary. : )


Marian Pearson Stevens said...

Thanks for the post, Lois! I can always use the reminder.

jeff7salter said...

Great list, Lois ... and I'm glad you provided helpful illustrations of most points.
But ... OUCH! You stepped on my (writing) toes a bit.

Lyn said...

Thanks for these great reminders 'was' and 'just' are things I always have to delete!

Vicky said...

Hi Lois,

Great blog! I shared this with my Romance Writers of New Zealand chapter (we just did a session on layering your scene, so it was really pertinent) and with my HistCrit group. Thanks for the detailed guidance.

Vicky English

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Lois,
Welcome to the Scribes.

Great information to refer to over and over.

I tend to overwrite on my puke draft and then have to tighten and tighten again.

Your 15-step "program" gave me wonderful tips I can use. I always do better when I can refer to samples of what doesn't work and what does.


~LA of the scribes.

Cody Young said...

Really helpful advice - the examples are great.

Gael McCarte said...

I'm so happy with this advice I'm bouncing on the balls of my feet and throwing my Mary Tyler Moore beret in the air. (Seriously, I loved it - thanks)

Lois Winston said...

So glad you found the blog helpful, Gael. And that you even stumbled across it. That post was from last May.