Tag Archives: Cutting extra words

6 ways to improve your novel right now – by Louise Harnby…

These smart tips from Louise Harnby on cleaning up your prose in late edits also work well when you’re looking for those last thousand or so words you need to cut. For example, every time you eliminate a dialogue tag like “said,” you generally cut at least two words. Same with cutting filters (and this is an excellent primer on what that term means). In my “Power-Cutting” posts, I’ve also noted how often the phrases “to me” or “for him” can be cut; they act a lot like Harnby’s “anatomy-based action[s].” For example:

“He offered the book to me” vs. “He offered the book” when “I” am standing right there and the obvious recipient of the book.

I found a whole short-story-full of those kinds of cuts!

I’m currently deep in edits of my “Horse Show Book,” tentatively titled Three Strides Out (more mystery and horses!!), and hope soon to be able to edit at the level Harnby’s discussing here. That’s always a great milestone.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Give your novel a sentence-level workout. Here are 6 common problems, and the solutions that will improve the flow of your fiction and make the prose pop.

Review your novel for 6 common problems. None involve major rewriting, just relatively gentle recasts that will improve your prose significantly, and make your reader’s experience more immersive.

1. Assess invasive adverbs
2. Remove redundant filter words
3. Take the spotlight off speech tags
4. Pick up dropped viewpoint
5. Trim anatomy-based action
6. Turn intention into action

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Filed under Editing your novel, Learning to write, self editing for fiction writers, style for writers, writing novels

Pet Peeve No. 2146: Bad Advice about the Progressive Tense

How I react to recurring pet peeves! Screaming writer!

No, I don’t really have that many pet peeves about the writing advice I find on so many excellent blogs. Maybe only 2145. Or maybe it’s just that I see this one so often that it feels like I’ve seen it 2145 times.

Here it is:

“Whenever you find that you’ve used an “-ing” form of a verb, get rid of it. It’s a writing sin!”

The idea behind this advice is that the sentence

She was eating her lunch when the phone rang.

Means the same thing as

She ate her lunch when the phone rang.

No.

I have a feeling that most native English-speakers’ ear for their language tells them that these two sentences don’t mean the same thing and can’t be substituted for each other. The “to be” + “ing” form is the “progressive tense,” denoting an ongoing event or action, often, in narratives, functioning as a setting for some other action, probably involving the relative times of events.

Rain was falling by the time we went outside.

I walked out while he was still talking.

The usual advice is to change the progressive form to the simple past as in the example above or the simple present if you’re writing in present tense.

I am watching my son play outside as the phone begins to ring.

I watch my son play outside as the phone begins to ring.

Substituting the simple forms in place of the progressive introduces a suggestion of causality: One action caused the other.

I ate my lunch because the phone rang.

The ringing phone causes me to begin watching my son.

Note that the second example of this construction places a subtle emphasis on the ringing phone that is not present in the progressive example, linking the ringing phone with the decision or need to watch the child. Something momentous, probably ominous, underlies that call! (The guy she broke up with is making one last, futile push!)

The advice to cut this form appears to be connected to our need to “tighten” our writing. It also may result from the fear of the verb “to be” that seems to haunt so many writing pundits (a misplaced fear in my view).

Obviously, we all need to make sure our writing is as crisp as possible, with excess words excised. Scrutinizing your “-ing” choices does no harm, especially if (okay, like me) you begin to see a lot of them in your prose. Trying out different sentence options is seldom a wasted effort. For example,

Or

I’d just smeared my first helping of foie gras on my eighty-grain artisanal flatbread when the phone rang.

I walked out right in the middle of his jibber-jabber.

So what I’m inveighing against here isn’t the need to eye all our favorite sentence patterns with suspicion. I get that. What I’m resisting is the idea that you can always substitute simple tenses for progressive versions and that you should do so at the sacred altar of cutting words.

Sometimes it’s okay to let words do what they want to do. They usually will, anyway.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

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Filed under Editing your novel, Myths and Truths for writers, self editing for fiction writers, style for writers

A Unsung Use for that Humble Verb, “Said”

Lightning strike--metaphor for the effect of a strategic use of "said."
Making writing zing!

Here’s a topic I’ve never seen discussed: a service the lowly verb “said” can perform.

We get showered with advice about dialogue tags. E.g., if you must use them, use only plain ol’ “said.” If at all possible, don’t use them. As I pointed out in my recent post on strategies for cutting, eliminating the dialogue tag by letting an action do its work can save words almost every time.

But I’ve found “said” to be a strategic device in its own right for managing the rhythm of scenes.

Scenes have peaks and valleys, riffs that build to a turning point in a dramatic exchange, then fall off, only to rise again—mini-crescendos, if you will. And each scene should end on a note of finality, of closure, rather than dribbling off into that bare line break. The high moments, where the scene will turn to its next compelling development, as well as the last line, need the weight of a tough nugget of sound that “punctuates” these peaks.

I suggest humbly that even where it’s not needed for coherence or clarity, “said” can be recruited to supply this rhythmic punch.

Here’s an example to show what I mean. Imagine this as a scene ascending to its close:

“He’ll win.” I paced in front of her, arms flailing. “He’ll have you believing every lie he tells you.”

She studied me with a cool smile.

“I doubt it.”

Nothing wrong with that ending. But I suggest that it feels as if there’s more to come. If so, it doesn’t signal a solid scene ending, a turning point, as scene endings should. Let’s add the tag:

“He’ll win.” I paced in front of her, arms flailing. “He’ll have you believing every lie he tells you.”

She studied me with a cool smile.

“I doubt it,” she said.

No, “she said” is not “needed.” But if this is a peak transition in a scene or an ending line. “said” brings the moment home with a satisfying pop.

Obviously, like all writing choices, this one should be employed purposefully. Often you can tweak the crescendo line so it ends with its own strong beat. But it doesn’t hurt to have “she said” or “he said” or “they said” in reserve.

Have you ever used “said” this way? Share your examples!

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Filed under dialogue in novels for writers, Editing your novel, self editing for fiction writers, style for writers

Power Cutting II: Quick Line- Edit Tricks to Streamline Your Prose

I cut a 107,000-word manuscript to 90,000 words; a 106,000-word ms. to under 100,000.

Was there pain involved? A little, I guess.

But why give an agent a reason to reject a query right in the first line? Querying a 150,000-word mystery screams that I don’t know genre rules.

It may sound as if I think that cutting serves only a specific purpose, to meet genre requirements. But I’ve found as well how tightening can enliven prose and enrich readers’ experiences. The process forces me to look at what matters in a scene or a story.

Case in point: the original draft of King of the Roses was 700 pages. My wonderful St. Martin’s editor told me to lose 200 of them. What a difference. (I had to learn the hard way that the skills I used then should be used every time. Don’t be me.)

Alarmed green smiley

I’ve posted previously about the “big-ticket” strategies I discovered in my cutting process. Here are some specific tricks you can use to “line-edit,” that is, tackle your prose sentence by sentence.

These reflect my belief that every word counts. It’s great to watch a single select-delete take 500 words off your word count, but if you chop 20 words from every page of a 300-page novel, that’s 6,000 words!

You can find most of these strategies in various “how-to” books for writers, not least of which may be old stand-bys like Strunk and White. Many look really obvious. They are—but when I began to line-edit, I was surprised how often I’d missed opportunities to use them. Always, of course, clarity comes first! But when you absolutely must find that last few thousand words, these are simple tools.

  • Opt for contractions when you can.

She had seen is three words; she’d seen is two

  • Exchange many (or even just two) words for one:

He took the gun out of his pocket/He took the gun from his pocket.

If I couldn’t come up with a solution/If I couldn’t supply/provide/suggest/manage, etc., a solution (more precision as well as economy!)

  • Cut or reduce what I’ll call “directives” when they don’t add information. These are often prepositional phrases.

He offered the flower to me. I took it from him.

He offered the flower. I took it.

She walked ahead of me/She walked ahead.

I logged into my computer/I logged in.

  • Eliminate prepositional phrases by turning the object (a noun) into an adjective.

A castle with many chambers/a many-chambered castle.

  • Reduce dialogue tags to actions.

“I can’t do that,” said Jane, shaking her head.

“I can’t do that.” Jane shook her head.

Caveat: make sure who’s speaking is clear. Actions just before or after dialogue should be performed by the speaker of the dialogue.

  • Combine sentences. This strategy can sometimes make one verb or modifier do the work of two.

I probably owed my friends some accounting of how I’d ended up on the news. So far they hadn’t asked, and for that I was grateful.

So far my friends hadn’t asked how I’d ended up on the news, and for that forbearance I was grateful. (26–20, even with a clarifying word added).

  • Verbalize! Many words have both a noun form and a verb form. Usually the verb form is less wordy and, as a bonus, more active. Many style books will have lists of these noun forms.

Made a decision/decided

Took into consideration/considered

Had a picnic at the park/picnicked at the park

  • One option for cutting that is a little more subtle but useful when you become aware of it is the opening sentence that explains what the following paragraph does. (thanks to a writing-group colleague for showing me how many times I committed this sin).

Austin traffic took the nerves of a fighter pilot. That morning gave me more hair-raising near misses than usual, people driving as if lane lines were just decorations. Turning onto the university campus, I congratulated myself on having let loose only a few muffled curses.

Austin traffic that morning gave me more hair-raising near misses than usual, people driving as if lane lines were just decorations. Turning onto the university campus, I congratulated myself on having let loose only a few muffled curses.

I love my clever little opener, but when I need cuts, doesn’t the paragraph work fine without those nine extra words?

  • Related: the opening sentence that you then repeat in different words. Again, I catch these more often than I’d like to admit.

The question didn’t faze me. I’d spent half my life preparing to answer it.

I’d spent half my life preparing to answer that question.

Note, there’s nothing wrong with any of these choices. My focus here is that time when you really, really must cut. Hate to slice out your beautiful descriptive or emotional passage? These simple strategies might buy the space you need to let your darlings be.

What strategies do you use to pare the last edges off your prose?

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Filed under Editing your novel, self editing for fiction writers, style for writers, writing novels