GET TO THE POINT (or the joy of writing succinctly)


Hey hey folks. Hope you are doing well.

After my last post here I want to give what may seem to be a counterpoint piece of advice. Last time I waxed philosophical about metaphor and the long strung description that give lyrical beauty to your writing.

All of that holds true.

Today, however, I want to talk about writing concisely.

We writer folks love our words. We think in words and when we write (especially first drift) we tend to go overboard, stuffing our sentences with every cool little adverb and adjective we can find. Oftentimes we are writing to make everything as clear to the reader as we can, really wanting them to be able to see the room we are describing. Our characters walk into a bar and we want to tell the reader how big the bar is, what kind of decorations there are on the wall, describe all the patrons and what they are doing, . . . we’ll even tell the reader about all the bottles of alcohol on the barback trying to capture what the look of the setting is.

90% is nothing but filler. Try something like this instead.

I stepped through the door of O’Malley’s,  a dive bar in every sense of the word but nobody’d warned it the pool had been drained. It was a broken room full off broken people and it smelled like shit in an ashtray.

That’s quick and dirty but it gets to the point of summing up a slum bar in two quick, evocative sentences. It also applies the advice I gave last time of using the metaphor of something to describe it.

The other place we clutter up our writing is in dialog. I call it the “he said/she said game”.  I am well documented in my hatred of speechtags. They are of the Devil and should be exterminated. They just drag around your manuscript being lazy. Once you start a conversation between two characters let the flow go, your reader will keep up. If you need to reinstate the order of who’s speaking then give them a quick action that will pull double duty of establishing their character.

For the example, we’ll go back to the bar.

The bartender sloshed over, rag in a chubby hand. “Whatta ya want?”

“A Rum Runner.” I struck a match and lit my cancerstick to cover the smell of him. “You don’t have to put a little umbrella in it if you don’t want.”

“This look like tha beach to you pal?”

“Then hold the Runner and the umbrella and give me a shot of rum.”

“Outta rum.”

“Beer then.”

“Outta beer.”


“Outta whiskey.”

I eyed the bottles behind him. He didn’t move, just mouthbreathed in front of me. I shook my head. “You’re not going to make this easy are you?”

He leaned in, putting the hand holding the rag on the bar hard. It clunked. A fat silver tube peeked out of a dirty fold. Looked like a .357, maybe even a .44.

I sighed.

Nope, not going to make this easy.


Again, quick and dirty, but you get the point. Hope this helps in your writing and your editing.

Don’t forget the newest book in my Deacon Chalk series, BLOOD AND MAGICK, comes out on Tues March 4th! NEXT TUESDAY!!! It’ll be available everywhere books and ebooks are sold, so go pick it up!

Till next time, be cool.



14 comments to GET TO THE POINT (or the joy of writing succinctly)

  • Yo! Go go go on the new book! 🙂 Hope it does great. I love your character and your style.

    And yes, I like succinct, to the point writing, especially in the urban fantasy genre. It’s fun, it makes the reading fast, it speeds the heartbeat, it pulls us into the story. But like the more poetic prose, there’s a place for everything, and half of being a writer is knowing where to put what. 🙂 Nice post, James.

  • Good luck with the book launch!

  • Thanks Faith and Mindy!

  • Hope the new book is a huge success, James. Congratulations on the release.

    I like the idea of concision, but I’m going to disagree a bit on dialog attribution. Said-bookisms are certainly something to avoid. But just as using dialog tags all the time makes for dull, monotonous writing, avoiding them entirely can lead to confusion when the dialog is more complex (with longer statements being made by the characters) and can also sound forced as we cast about for other ways (gesture, facial expression, etc.) to indicate who is speaking. I use tags — not all the time, but mixed in with other approaches that include using gesture or action, or simply presenting a few lines without any attribution. Mixing it up is what works best for me. It may not work best for everyone. But those tags can be a valuable tool. And as soon as you start a scene in which more than two characters are speaking, they become essential. My $.02.

  • One thing I can add to this: if you want practice with concision, do some flash fiction exercises. You’d be surprised what you find out you can cut away when you only have a few hundred words to work with. But I like the little details in stories, the window dressing. I admit it. I don’t mind the extra words. But as Faith said, there’s a place for everything.

  • I’ve read many times about writers going “overboard, stuffing our sentences with every cool little adverb and adjective we can find” so for my first book I concentrated on writing succinctly. Then I had one of my beta readers suggest I “add in a little more fluff”. Sometimes you just can’t win.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’m just going to chime in agreeing with David. Mixed attributions is what I like best, as a writer and a reader. I’ve read books where the author was so wanting to avoid speech-tags that they even lost me on who was saying what in a few 2-character dialog segments. But I *really* agree that they should only be used when necessary. The very least damage they can do when used all the time is make a stretch of dialog sound ridiculously repetitive.

  • David and Hepseba- I agree. I don’t mean NEVER, you can even find the occasional “said” in my work, but it is not need as much as most folks use it. I’ve read books where no dialog goes untagged and that is overboard.

    I love me some Ken Bruen, the master of untagged dialog and sparse writing, but sometimes I do have to read a sentence or two twice to get the full impact.

    It’s all relative and every book you write will be a unicorn: untamed and totally unique.

    Daniel- Great suggestion. I love writing flash to get the writing motor turned over on a slow day.

    Kevin- Go with your heart man, especially if you are facing only one suggestion otherwise.

  • sagablessed

    Personlly, I like the dialog section better. It sets up a mood without being trite or insubstantial. Then again, I am a bit wordy in my own works. My fingers have blisters from the cleaver.
    May your endevour be profitable.

  • Ken

    Good Luck with the book release James!!!

    To me, “said” almost becomes invisible when I’m reading, especially in a tighter paced conversation like your example above. If you’d included “Said”, I probably would have just skimmed over the tag and moved on to the next piece of dialogue. That makes perfect sense to me. I can also see David’s point where the conversation gets complicated or when the author has mentioned another character’s reaction, or motion while the speaker is speaking and they need to “Remind” the reader who has the floor (so to speak).

    I love a crisp back and forth dialogue (Who doesn’t…) when the story calls for it. Like other folks have posted above, there’s a place for prose that’s shaved bone deep, and a place for the shiny stuff. It all depends on what the story calls for at that moment.

  • BTW, Ken, always love the Zuko dragon dance pic. You got a personal blog?

  • Vyton

    Good luck and congratulations. Sell a lot of books. I’m like Ken, most of the *saids* go right by me. And I agree with David when there are more than two in the conversation, the tags are required. Unless it is clear from what’s being said who said it. On road trips, my wife drives, and I read mysteries aloud. I have to add tags in dialogue where the clue for who is speaking comes from the layout of the page or is otherwise too confusing. It’s also an easy re-wind. The funny thing is is that the books I read to her use *said* almost all the time. But when she reads something I’ve written, she complains that using *said* all the time is boring. I’m sticking with it though.

  • Not much to add on the actual topic, other than I loved your bar scene example, James. 🙂 You’ve got a nice writing style and I look forward to your new book (already read a couple). Best of luck with it!