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To Be Brief

I’ve just finished the third draft of my work in progress–(which, since you ask, is a dystopian science fiction novel) and among my goals was homing in on wordiness.

In third drafts, I bear down on sentences and paragraphs. Not only to smooth them out, but with an eye to brevity. I eliminated 11 pages worth of sentences and paragraphs. Because writing better often means shorter. As in these examples:

Passive voice. I believe there are times when passive voice is excellent. Just not very often, since it is like sand in the gas tank. Don’t need it, and it does damage. TRY: A computer search for the word was (and were):

  1. Each branch was talking. vs: Each branch spoke.

  2. Entering the hall, she noted that he was not at his usual sentry duty.vs: Entering the hall, she noted his absence from sentry duty.

Saying things twice. As in stringing together clauses that repeat the thought. “She was restless, couldn’t sit still or keep her mind on the lecture.” This is first draft stuff. Cut, cut, (I told myself.)

Piling on the similes and metaphors. A sentence, a complete thought, can carry only a limited amount of embellishment. For some odd reason we often string together two or more similes or metaphors to enhance the same thought. On the rewrite, pick one.

Unlikely similes. Would the character really feel the experience was like something else, especially the thing you’ve chosen? “He ducked the barrage of bullets coming at him like a freight train.” He’s really comparing his impending death to something? In close POV, the reader needs to believe that the character would actually be thinking of the simile. (And really, freight train?)

Tucking in information. This is a really annoying habit of mine. “Wounded, he ran to the grand staircase, grabbing the ancient, ornate banister for support.” It implies the wounded guy notices the age and ornateness of the banister. Nope. If the plot requires the reader to know that the banister is elaborate, explain it some time when the character would really notice that feature. And another example: “She turned left into the alley.” What if the reader had in their mind she was on the other side of the street? Then it’s a right turn. The extra stage direction can bump the reader out. And more: “He grabbed the baseball bat, a gift from his beloved uncle, and raced to help his friends.” Thank goodness for his uncle’s gift, but not in this sentence.

Dialogue. On a third draft, read the dialogue lines out loud. Many improvements are probably needed, but here’s an easy one: Don’t have the characters say the other person’s name. “Mirabel, walk with me in the garden?” In real life, we almost never say people’s names in conversation. Unless there are 3+ people talking. But still, limit it.

Dialogue again. Pare it down. Let people sometimes speak in fragments. Release your determination to explain too much to the other person. Dialogue is not a good time to dump information, because we should be focusing on the emotional content, the attitude, the hidden agenda. Sometimes you do reveal things in dialogue, but beware stuffing things in.

Dialogue once more. Cut the stage business out of your dialogue, or keep it very short. Each “side” of dialogue doesn’t need to contain how they are gazing, feeling, siting or turning their head. We’re making the mistake of “seeing our book as a movie.” The more we try to do this, the more futile it is. If you want to show tension, put it in what they say. Remember the old adage: Dialogue is what characters do to each other. Also, (I told myself), don’t routinely stuff in internal thoughts. When you do, keep it short. Sometimes by the time we get to the other character’s response, we’ve forgotten what they’re responding to!

Formality. I wince when I’m editing my work and see how often I slip into formality. I begin sentences with “And,” or use longish words (“utilized”).  In dialogue, I might neglect to use contractions. “I could not bear it.” Why do I do this? Don’t know. Unless the situation calls for a stilted tone, use contractions.

There are many books dedicated to the art of editing, particularly editing down. One of my faves is The 10% Solution by Ken Rand.

Happy cutting!


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