October 29, 2012

13 Ways to Exorcise Wordiness

Twitter may be extreme–140 characters to communicate an entire thought–but the intent is right: Make your writing pithy. Fill each sentence with context. Make every word count. Fluff is boring. It slows the pace of the story, story’s pace, puts your reader to sleep, and is a fundamental reason why people stop reading your book. Forever. Instead of inspiring them to lose themselves in your tale, they put it down and never miss it.

Writers too often get caught up in their own prose, believing flowery spotlights their burgeoning writerly skills. On the contrary. The collection of words may be beautiful, but are they effective? That’s why people read their novel aloud. It sounds completely different to the ear than the mind. Does it still flow when you hear it or are the sentences stilted and forced, or wandering? Be brutal. Change the phrasing until it sounds right.

Here are some of the most effective wordiness fixes you can make:

  1. Don’t use ‘very’. It’s a cardboard hammer: looks good on paper, but fails in the harsh glare of reality.
  2. Limit prepositional phrases. Readers get lost in the maze of phrases starting with ‘in’, ‘from’, ‘after’–those words that you think add colorful detail and readers see as distracting. If those details are so important, give them their own sentence or show them in situ.
  3. Limit adjectives and adverbs to max two per noun/verb. In writing creativity and sloth can look a lot alike to the newbie writer. Let me help you with that: Creativity is using the right nouns and verbs in the right place. Sloth is expecting adjectives and adverbs to do the heavy lifting.
  4. Skip meaningless phrases like ‘given the fact that’. They bury your lead. Just tell us the facts.
  5. Eliminate ‘which’ and ‘that’. How often is ‘that’ necessary to get an idea across? Take it out, see if your idea comes across. Usually, it’s as useful as a chocolate teapot.
  6. Use active instead of passive words. Using ‘are’, ‘is’, and their ilk requires additional explanation to communicate the action of your scene your scene’s action. Can you turn it around? Change ‘She was energized and started to clean her house with renewed vigor.’ to ‘Energized, she vigorously cleaned her house.’
  7. For that matter, ‘started’ (as in the example above) is rarely required. We don’t need to know when something started AND that it’s occurring. The latter is sufficient.
  8. Don’t confuse quantity with quality. Your reader won’t. You want support? Buy a bra. Don’t get it by bolstering your word count.
  9. Don’t repeat yourself. It’s tempting to say the same thing a few different ways, just in case the reader didn’t get it. Don’t. Trust your reader or fix your prose. Or do both.
  10. Negatives are wordy; positives put the reader in a better frame of mind for your story.
  11. Don’t mitigate your argument with words like ‘mostly’, ‘kind of’, ‘is possible’. Be strong, aggressive, sure of yourself. Believe in yourself and your readers will also. When you really want to slap someone with the truth, do it. Apologize later if you must, but lay your soul out there for all to see.
  12. Metaphors and similes are clarifiers. Cliches are filler. The former are the WD 40 of your story arc. The latter are sinkholes the reader tries to skip over.
  13. Get rid of non-essential information, even if it’s interesting. It slows the story pace. Or grinds it to a halt. Tom Clancy and James Michener can get away with it. Most of us can’t.

That’s it. Now go write!

PS–I marked some of my edits so you could see how it changed this article. Better, don’t you think?

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a K-6 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, creator of two technology training books for middle school and six ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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