Quick Tips To Help You Tighten Up Your Writing

Over the last few weeks, trusted blogging, self-publishing and writing friends of mine have kept you entertained with guest posts while I forgo watching the rest of House of Cards in order to finish The Damn Novel. We’ve had Pat Fitzpatrick’s 3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Self-Publishing My Novel, Dan Holloway’s Self-Publish Your Way and Jean Grainger’s Self-Publishing: The Professionals Effect, all of which you clearly enjoyed and found useful judging by the fact that they were shared and retweeted more times than the average post from me. (We’ll talk about that later, okay? Hmph.) Today our final guest post is one that comes at a crucial time for me and which I’m sure will be of use to you too: C.S. Lakin’s quick tips to help you tighten up your writing. Enjoy! I’m off to annihilate all mentions of the passive voice…

“Writers often think about tightening their writing. Just what does that mean? And how is it done? Is there a way that writers can tighten writing without losing their voice or compromising their writing style?

Like sneaky calories, many unwanted words and phrases find their way into our writing unnoticed and bog it down. The goal should be to write in a concise fashion so that our meaning is clearly understood. It’s not all that tricky to do. And don’t worry—this can be done without adversely cramping a writer’s style.

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That’s not to say these tips are a cure-all for major flaws in a story, article, or book. But similar to the get-in-shape-fast programs, here are some simple things writers can do to tighten sentences, shed unwanted words, and tone and shape the whole “body” of work.

  1. Eliminate fatty words from your “diet.” Make a list of your weasel words. Those are the words you throw in out of habit. Often they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to. Grab a random page of your document and see if you can eliminate at least one or two words from every sentence. It may not be possible, but it’s a good exercise. If the word doesn’t add importance to a sentence, it should go. Then attack the rest of your novel.
  2. Reword passive voice where possible. Whether referring to general passive (“The food was eaten by me” instead of “I ate the food”) or present progressive passive (“The food is being served” instead of “the waiters served the food”), most of the time a sentence will be stronger if the passive voice is avoided. An easy way to seek and destroy unwanted passive construction is do a “Find” for ing, was, is, it was, and there was, to name a few.
  3. Avoid circumlocution. I just love that word, so I have to use it. Don’t use two words when one will do. Don’t use four when three will do. If two adjectives are similar, pick the best one and toss the other.
  4. Ditch the extraneous speaker and narrative tags. If you are writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, you may have dialog in your piece. Be aware that if the reader knows who is speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over—especially in a scene with only two characters. And remove all those flowery verbs that stick out, such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected. Just use said and asked, and maybe an occasional replied or answered. Really. Less is more . . . effective.
  5. Search and destroy repetition. We tend to repeat words, phrases, or ideas in the same paragraph. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do, to drive home a point, perhaps in summary at the end of a section or subheading. But writers often try to say the same thing in a different way, and instead of adding new material they are essentially rehashing what they’ve already said. One great way to catch those repetitive words is to hear your piece read aloud using a  software program like Natural Reader.
  6. And a word about backstory . . . Yes, the dreaded backstory, which novelists have been told to shun in the first chapters of a novel. But really, do you need it? Take a look at all the places you have backstory and boil down just a few lines of the most important information you feel the reader must know to “get” the story. Then see if you can have a character either think or say these things instead of going into lengthy narrative. Look for any passage that feels like author intrusion or an info dump and find another way to impart the information.

If you’re the kind of writer that needs to “add weight” to your skimpy book, you have a different challenge, and the problem won’t be solved by ignoring all the above tips. Remember, it’s the unwanted fat you want to eliminate. Be sure what you add to a skimpy novel is muscle, not fat. And for the rest of us who overwrite, be reassured that by implementing these easy tips, you can help trim those unwanted “pounds” from your pages and tighten your writing.”

Pro photo for book coverAbout our special guest star: C. S. Lakin is a multipublished novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Self-Publishing: The Professionals Effect

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Over the last couple of weeks some of my fellow self-publishers have been keeping you entertained and inspiring with their self-publishing stories while I sand down my fingerprints finishing my novel. (Or this draft of it, at least.) Today in the penultimate ‘guest post’ installment, The Tour author Jean Grainger shares her self-publishing journey with us. You can read the previous guest posts in this series, 3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Self-Publishing My Novel and Self-Publishing: Do It Your Way by clicking on the links. Welcome, Jean!

Firstly I’d like to thank Catherine for inviting me to guest blog on Catherine, Caffeinated. This blog has been a constant source of advice, information and smiles for me since I started writing so I’m delighted to be here.

My journey into self publishing began when I spotted an advertisement for a one day course in Dublin. The expert speaker was Catherine. Hoping I had written a book that someone other than my mother might regard as a worthwhile way to spend their hard earned cash and time, I took myself off to hear what she had to say.

Of course, like most newcomers to this world I was seduced by the ads online promising that I’d be published in ten minutes, with nothing more than a curled up dusty manuscript needed from myself, or at least the digital equivalent. I had, unfortunately in hindsight, expressed interest in a company in the U.S. through their website who promised to make the whole simple process even simpler for a small fee who were now treating me to daily phone calls explaining how they were going to make me the next big thing.

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It all seemed simple. No need to wait for the elusive nod from the big publishing house, no more torturing myself visualising my hard work on the dreaded ‘slush pile’ going straight from the post bag to the shredder. It seemed like my dream of becoming an author could come true with self-publishing. Still, in the back of my mind I knew there had to be a catch, I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

The day of the course came and as we sat in a lovely hotel overlooking the bay I chatted enthusiastically with my fellow writing hopefuls, some of whom were already published traditionally and who were seeking new ways to breathe life into their careers, or simply monetising their work, others, like myself were total newcomers. It was all very exciting.

With Catherine’s combination of sound advice and humour , she outlined clearly what you needed to do. Ok, you needed a bit of computer savvy, tick. You had to have actually written a half decent book, again, (hopefully) tick. Everything was going great, I was right on track when Catherine dropped the bombshell. You must, and there was no grey area here, you must have your work professionally edited. Obviously, I thought, she doesn’t mean me. You see, I’m an English teacher. My life is spent correcting mistakes, restructuring plot, ensuring  the writing is purposeful ,  coherent, using appropriate and varied language and adhering to the laws of English mechanics. I’ve taught at university, I correct state exams, I don’t need an editor, I am an editor.

Wrong.

I need an editor. Everyone does, I don’t care who you are, what your day job is, you simply cannot edit yourself.

I’d love to say that there and then in that hotel in Dublin I saw the light, but if I’m to be honest I wasn’t convinced. Catherine however, was the expert and I decided just to trust her on it. I parted with the cash, a considerable amount of it, and I got myself an editor. For my first book, I found two editors in fact, one who read the story and looked at structure, plot development, characters and so on, and another, a copy editor to look at the actual prose. If I have learned anything from this process it is this – If I was to look at that manuscript until I was old and grey I would never have seen the glaring inconsistencies the editing process brought to light. I can’t actually believe I thought it was OK, it really, really wasn’t.

My structural editor, the wonderful  Helen Falconer, over lots of tea and biscuits showed me how to make my characters consistent and believable, how to add and subtract from the plot and the result was a much better story. My copy editor seemed to be able to polish my prose so that it still sounded like me, just a better, more articulate me. Words cannot adequately describe the positive impact these professionals had on my work.

This knowledge was liberating when writing my second book. I knew I’d be chopping and dissecting it once it was done so it gave me the confidence just to write, I didn’t worry too much about the finer points. As with the first book, Helen once again worked her magic, and now I have two books of which I’m proud, the alternative is something that makes me shudder. The moral of the tale? Listen to Catherine, she knows her stuff.   [Thanks, Jean! Your fiver’s in the post…!]

Find about more about Jean on her website (Jean: is that header image really where you write? I’m jealous! It looks so cosy…). Her books The Tour and So Much Owed are available on Amazon.

I think what’s interesting about Jean’s story is that she held a very common misconception about self-publishing: that she didn’t need an editor. And why wouldn’t she think that? Jean is an English teacher! But after she ‘saw the light’ as she puts it, she met Helen, and I know that Helen has become a big part of her process and not only a box that has to be ticked. So tell us: what is the biggest misconception you had before you self-published? What long-held belief about the process went flying out the window as soon as you started? What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned? Let us know in the comments below…