Quick-Tip Tuesday: Joshua Palmatier on “The Mighty Red Pen”

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For today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post, I welcome Joshua Palmatier, writer and editor par excellence, and a frequent contributor to  Magical Words.

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Threading the Needle, by Joshua PalmatierWe’re coming up on the release of my second “Ley” novel, THREADING THE NEEDLE, and David B. Coe asked me to stop by and give you all a Quick Tip for Quick Tip Tuesday.  So my quick tip for this Tuesday is:  How to Cut a Significant Number of Words from Your Manuscript that You Thought Was Done.

Here’s the situation:  THREADING THE NEEDLE had already undergone three revisions—my own personal revision, a revision prompted by my agent, and a revision prompted by my editor.  That’s generally the last revision before the book hits copy edits and page proofs, where nothing really significant is changing (for the most part), just typos, smoothing out sentences, continuity error corrections, etc.  So imagine my surprise when I get an email from my agent saying that, yeah, the book is good, but there are a few things that could be cut that would make it even better.  He’d like to see me try to cut a few thousand words from the book.  What did he want me to focus on cutting?  Dialogue tags, facial expressions, and body gesture.  You know, all of those little “he scoffed” or “she snorted” tags that you attach to the dialogue so that everyone knows exactly who’s speaking and that can give the dialogue an extra bit of flavor or nuance.  And also all of those “he grimaced” or “her mouth twitched up in a smile” or “he shrugged” phrases that you insert into the paragraph to again give it some added flavor or nuance.  My agent pointed out that the dialogue tags shouldn’t be necessary—the reader should be getting the flavor and nuance from the words in the dialogue and their familiarity with the character built up over the course of the book.  They should mentally hear the scoff or the snort just in what the character says.  Similarly for the shrugs and grins and grimaces.  The context of the situation and what the reader knows of the character should make those actions “visible” to the reader without the use of the words.

And you know what?  He’s right.  I balked at cutting these words at first.  In my mind, they made the sentences flow together better.  But I buckled down and decided to do what my agent suggested and guess what?  The sentences flowed just fine without those phrases inserted in there.  Granted, you can’t cut ALL of those types of phrases out completely—sometimes you do need the inflection to be clear, or the nuance up front.  But in general, I found I could cut out nearly all of them, keeping in just enough so that it was easier to follow conversations.  And even for those dialogue tags that I kept, I tried to make them “invisible” to the reader by using standards such as “he said” or “she asked,” because those types of phrases barely register on the reader as they read.  Using something like “she snorted” adds an extra layer of interpretation in the reader’s mind that they have to process, which can slow them down.  And in dialogue, it’s the dialogue that should be most important.  That’s what the reader should be focusing on, not the tag.

I went through the entire novel one more time, focusing on those types of phrases and cutting as many as I could.  I ended up cutting . . . wait for it . . . 26,000 words from the manuscript.  Granted there were a few other scenes and such that got cut or trimmed back in the process, but the majority of those 26,000 words came from simply removing unnecessary dialogue tags and facial and body expressions.  26,000 words.

So, my quick writing tip for the day:  If you need to cut wordage from your novel or short story, take a good hard look at your dialogue tags and facial and body expressions and ask yourself exactly how many of them you REALLY need in your story.

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Joshua Palmatier is an epic fantasy writer with a PhD in mathematics.  He has had eight novels published by DAW Books, including “The Throne of Amenkor” trilogy, Shattering the Ley, and Threading the Needle.  He is currently hard at work on the third novel in the “Ley” series, Reaping the Aurora.  In addition, he’s published numerous short stories in various anthologies and has edited four SF&F themed anthologies with co-editor Patricia Bray.  He is also the founder of the small press Zombies Need Brains LLC.  Find out more about him at www.joshuapalmatier.com or on Facebook or Twitter (@bentateauthor).

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