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.

Say What front cover

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.

18 thoughts on “Quick Tips To Help You Tighten Up Your Writing

  1. SeanR says:

    Really excellent tips presented there, thank you for sharing them. Backstory issues also make me think of how authors sometimes try to ‘wrap up’ a novel in a rushed manner.

  2. P. C. Zick says:

    Thank you for these reminders. It’s amazing how much we “over write.” I can spot it in the writing of others, which helps me to see it in my own. Right now I’m working on cutting down a manuscript by 10,000 words. I appreciate the reminders.

  3. M J A Watney says:

    I know I am swimming against the current here, but I am very concerned at the number of people advocating a terrible sameness to book content. Don’t be frightened of the passive. Don’t limit yourself to ‘said’ and ‘replied’ (I just replaced a ‘said’ with ‘recanted’ and the MS is so much better for it because in a single word the character’s change of opinion is reinforced [Yay! A passive!]) Revel in the wonderful colour the English language puts at your fingertips.

    The single most important thing in a book is your voice, the factor that makes Dickens immediately discernible from Woolf. This is why professional editors can be dangerous. Don’t let them disembowel your wonderful idiosyncratic style of writing by foisting rules and regulations on you. Your voice is what makes the book yours, and identifiably yours

    Secondly, entertain the eye. You do that by not always writing the same way, not always using ‘said’ or ‘replied’. Surprise the reader.

    Cadence is also important. In poetry it is obvious; in prose not so but acts on the reader no less powerfully for being unconscious. So do not be frightened of circumlocution if the cadence calls for it.

  4. Jean Grainger says:

    Nice post! I particularly get the back story problem. Without editorial intervention what started out as one story can often end up a totally different story. A reflection of the way I speak in fact, according to my husband. A regular feature of our conversations is ‘Now why did I start telling you that?’

  5. viveka says:

    Fantastic post … I wish my English was a lot better than it’s – I call it Swenglish. *smile
    Sometimes I really struggle with how write some sentences. And when to use are and is .. I’m learning. I would never survive to be a full time writer or author, I plot on with posts, a couple per week. Very interesting points you have brought to our attention here. Thank you so much.

  6. Rebecca says:

    Hey, Catherine. Glad you’re back. Did yo enjoy the Oscars? I did. Ellen DeGeneres was great. BTY, do you mind if I copy some of your Comment Policy? I want to add the part about spammers and the links. Let me know. You can e-mail me privately at foxrap@aol.com. Tx.

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