Last time, I talked about making a battle plan toward revisions that involved several focused passes at your manuscript. Today, I’m going to give you some specifics about an important pass I always make sure to do — cutting out useless words. Of course, this is merely one approach and, as is all writing advice, merely one opinion. Mileage may vary.
Whether we like to admit it or not, word count is an important part of writing. Too high or too low and your word count can have a severe impact on the salability of your work. Since most of my experience comes from writing short stories, the problem for me is often a case of too many words; however, everything I’m writing about today applies to novel writing as well. And the first point is that clear and concise are the key phrases to remember. More importantly (in my mind, at least) is that if I’m already well within the market’s preferred word count and I can knock-off even just ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred useless words, I then have the opportunity to fill that space back up with great details, depth of character, plugging up plot holes, etc. Or I can leave those words off, fill them in with nothing else, and just have a leaner piece of writing. In other words, by getting rid of extraneous wordage, I can better shape the work into what I really wanted it to be in the first place.
Now, some specifics:
Prepositional phrases — First, not all prepositional phrases are bad and need to be replaced. In fact, a well-chosen prep-phrase can add a lot of flavor to your sentences. Also, in some instances and some genres, prep-phrases help create the proper tone — such as epic fantasy in which “the sword of the honest” may have a better ring than “the honest’s sword”. However, often times a sentence can be re-ordered to avoid the prep-phrase, making the sentence cleaner and gaining you a word a two of free space.
Original: Derek pulled the ladle from the bowl with green spots and poured himself a delicious helping of chicken soup into his bowl.
Revised: Derek pulled the ladle from the green-spotted bowl and poured himself some delicious chicken soup. (-7 words)
Of course, context is crucial in your decision process. I didn’t feel it was important to mention the receptacle he poured the soup into — in fact, most people will assume it was a bowl unless told otherwise. But if it had been a key issue, then I would have to re-work the sentence differently. Likewise, if the green-spotted bowl is not important we could rewrite it further:
Revision 2: Derek poured himself some delicious chicken soup. (-15 words)
Obviously, this last revision lacks any real beauty as far as a sentence goes but it does get across the idea clearly. And frankly, does the reader need a beautiful sentence about pouring soup? If the story says YES, then this is the type of extreme cut that can make the room for more valuable writing. After all, I just gut fifteen words. I could now write an entire sentence that tells us something about Derek or simply add to this one.
Revision 3: Derek poured himself some delicious chicken soup, but he tasted little of it — he couldn’t stop thinking of Sarah. (still -2 words off the original).
Was Doing — Practically any time you come across this construction of the word was with a verb ending in -ing, you can be more direct by cutting out was and just using the past tense of the verb. This one can save you literally over a hundred words depending on your writing style.
Ex: The boy was running downtown.
Revised: The boy ran downtown. (-1 word)
Similarly, avoid having your characters “begin” to do things. Just do them.
Ex: As the night chilled, Mark began to build a fire.
Revised: As the night chilled, Mark built a fire. (-2 words)
Little changes like this add up over the course of an entire manuscript. You’ll be blown away by how many words you can tighten your work.
Almost — or nearly or barely or whatever vagueness you wish to employ. There are numerous reasons to avoid this construction and word count is among those reasons.
Ex: The bullet slammed into his chest, almost ripping a hole into his heart.
Rather than tell us what almost happened but really didn’t happen, let’s cut some words and fill them back in with what did happen, creating a more exciting, more visual sentence.
Revised: The bullet slammed into his chest, nicking his heart. (-4 words)
Obviously, context is important here. If in the story the heart shouldn’t be touched at all then forget the heart and tell us what the bullet did hit.
Revision 2: The bullet slammed him backward, snapping a rib in two. (-3 words)
Notice here that by being specific about the rib, I no longer needed to mention the bullet hitting the chest and could replace that prep-phrase with something offering more detail.
These are just basic examples but this is the kind of line by line, word by word editing I will do with the purpose of tightening my prose. The benefits are enormous. Your work will be clearer, read smoother, and take up less manuscript space thus opening great opportunities for development of the important aspects of storytelling — character, plot, description, etc. And notice that the examples provided were simple sentences. If you don’t want to kill too many of your darlings, then clean up the simple sentences so there’s room for all those precious words you have used elsewhere. Without any change to your concept, these revisions will improve your writing tenfold (maybe more!) and make your work that much better. Good luck!