I recently had the opportunity to help a couple of friends edit their writing. Not fiction, not this time, but essays. Essays they’re using to get money, no less. And because I’m never the type to leave material like that lying around unused, they now get to be the focus of a blog post. Congratulations, guys: you’re now teachable moments.
Though what I was carving into pieces with my pretty red pen was non-fiction, these lessons apply to fiction as well. This is all about making your prose lean and sharp so that it slides in as effortlessly as the blade of a just-honed knife. Nothing to catch on and make a mess that might lead a keen crime scene investigator to you.
When confronted with a blank page, it’s easy to ramble. It makes it less intimidating, and, hell, you’re getting something down, right?
Actually, yes, that is right. But sooner or later you’ll have to trim it back. Here’s how:
1. Think Hard About What You’re Trying To Say. Writing an essay? Think about your point, and then see if what you’ve written actually makes that clear. Letter? Think about the person you’re trying to portray to the reader; cut everything that doesn’t serve this. Fiction? Every chapter, every scene, every god damn sentence is trying to say something. Make sure it does. If it does not, then either change it or cut it.
2. Thou Shalt Not Suffer Intensifying Modifiers and Adverbs* To Live. If I could put an embargo on the use of the word ‘really’ in writing, I would. Not that you wouldn’t be able to use it, but to do so you’d have to fill out forms and provide character references and prove that you need it. As is, it feels like someone loaded up a Really Cannon and let fly. And then followed it with the Very Shotgun.
Likewise—and this one goes out to the fiction writers—think before using adverbs. People are always doing things quickly, tremulously, defiantly, and languorously. Cut that shit out. The manner should be clear from the writing; you shouldn’t need to bludgeon the reader over the head with it.
These words are filler that rarely do anything helpful. Quite the opposite: they slow things down and make it harder for a reader to get your point. Knock it off. Then, when your application goes through and you’re approved to use “really”, it serves its original purpose: to intensify that point and give it more weight.
A words of caution to the fiction writers: this doesn’t apply to dialogue. People use unnecessary words all the time when they’re talking. But it should still serve a purpose: defining that character. Possibly as a wordy bastard.
3. Stop Repeating Yourself. Or, To Put It Another Way, Stop Repeating Yourself. You already said that. Why are you saying it again? Do you think I didn’t get it the first time? Do you think I’m stupid? Well, do you?
Is this the reaction you want to provoke? Or worse, do you want to bore the reader?
Our inclination as writers is to repeat the things we feel are important. How else are we supposed to make sure that they get it? But in fiction and non-fiction alike, this just means you bludgeon your reader with the Big Important Stick. They don’t like it.
This comes in two main forms:
A) The Summary. If you feel like you need to restate your thesis or your theme to tie things up, don’t. It reads like a sixth grade report**: “My Totally Original Idea can be seen using A, B, and C. [Writes A, B, and C.] In conclusion, A, B, and C prove My Totally Original Idea.” We know. We just read it.
B) The You Don’t Get It. “Becky stared at the huge mecha-dinosaur. She’d never seen anything so big in the parking garage. It dwarfed the vehicles it was eating, making them seem diminutive in comparison. It was HUUUUUUUUGE.” Yeah, Becky, we get it. Big fucking mecha-dinosaur. Moving on.
We all do this shit. That’s why we edit. Now go forth and cut, word goblins. And sharpen those knives before you do.
*Bonus Fun Fact: I just googled to make sure I was using the right word. Because nothing burns like being wrong on the internet.
**This is fine if you actually are in the sixth grade. We all have to start somewhere.