Tightening your Writing by Deleting

Photo Credit: Ervins Strauhmanis / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ervins Strauhmanis / Flickr / Creative Commons

It’s been too long since I’ve blogged. I’m deep in the final ten to twenty thousand words of Pair Alleles (or Auntie Matter, I can’t decide), the fourth book in my Derivatives of Displacement series and am barely coming up for air as the day job continues to get more intense, the soccer season is in full swing, and I must get my thousand words written every single day. Every. Single. Day.

I had the good fortune to be selected for a Masters writing class with Lawrence Hill of The Book of Negroes fame last month. I got to sit next to him for the entire two-day class and tried not to be too literary fan girl, although I’m pretty sure I failed.

One of the exercises that he had us do, which I thought was quite useful, was to go through a polished, published short story by a famous Canadian writer and pretend we were editors. In order to fit the story within some page constraints of the journal, we were to trim forty words from the first two pages without changing the story.

The point of the exercise was that there is always something to be cut, even in a piece that seems perfect and has been crafted by a master.

Cutting words and tightening your prose can make your story flow faster and the action more gripping. Setting a precise target of the number of words to cut makes it more like a game and might make you more likely to actually make the cuts.

The things I deleted offer some insight into the kinds of things you should always consider pruning in your own prose, and were good reminders to me of the things to scrutinize when I do that final draft.

1) Adverbs

First to go were the adverbs (illogically, largely, slightingly). You know those ‘ly’ words that I defended here. They add color to your writing, and are okay in a limited quantity, but if something has to be cut, they are easy wins. I didn’t cut all of them though. Some of them are necessary to convey the intended meaning.

2) Redundancies

Then I hunted for redundancies – things that were said more than once or close enough, or things that were unnecessary clarifications of something the reader already knew or could guess. I several victories there and these had the benefit that they were often phrases so bumped up my deleted word count. Even famous writers repeat themselves occasionally it seems.

3) Adjectives

A few adjectives were the next to go (little, loose, sweet), especially the double barreled ones. You know when you love both descriptors so much that you put them both in. I do this all the time, but in a forced deletion exercise, having two adjectives for one noun is definitely unnecessary.

4) "That"

I found a “that” that could be axed along with the “were” that was with it, (“needles that were buried in my rump” became just “needles buried in my rump”). According to some editors, “that” is only necessary for clarity about 5 to 10% of the time, and the rest of the time it can and should be cut.

5) To Be

There were two cases of use of the verb to be (was, were, is) that I was able to cut and replace with the stronger verb that followed. (“The kettle was soon burbling” became “The kettle burbled”)

6) Prepositional Phrases

I found one prepositional phrase that could be deleted. Prepositional phrases (phrases that start with of, for, to, in, by) can clutter sentences and can often be replaced by a single word, or cut entirely (“It was the garden of the pastor” becomes “it was the pastor’s garden).

7) Detail

I cut an entire sentence of interesting, but unnecessary detail. Yes, I know details add color to a story, but this was a deleting exercise, and it’s important to examine every single sentence in your story and ask yourself whether adds.

Applying the deletion lens to someone else’s work was a useful exercise. I’m not wedded to someone else’s words the way I am to my own, so I could be more playful and experimental with my cuts. Since I had a word target, I scrutinized every word and sentence, looking for opportunities to trim words. It was also helpful to analyze my deletions to find that I was, without thinking, following some of the key rules to tightening prose. Because this was a previously published piece, it was already pretty tight, but other things to look for when you are deleting include:

8) Fatty Words or Phrases

Fatty words or phrases don't say anything. They just clutter your sentences. Try to get rid of them as much as possible. Look for words and phrases such as:

  • in order to
  • start to
  • very
  • really
  • definitely
  • just
  • currently
  • there is/there are
  • -ing verbs with a form of to be in front of them

9) The Passive Voice

Not only is the passive voice weaker (The bird was eaten by the cat), but using the passive voice often also results in using more words than the active voice (The cat ate the bird).

10) Unnecessarily Complex Phrases

Always look for unnecessarily complex phrases that could be replaced by single words e.g. replace “came to a stop” with “stop” and “due to the fact that” with “because”.

11) Noncontractions

Okay, I know that isn't a word. But there isn't a word for the opposite of contraction in a grammatical sense. Use contractions to trim words and make your writing flow better. I tend not to write with contractions at all, but when you read writing without contractions, especially aloud, it sounds stilted and overly formal. In my final manuscript review, I do a search on “not”, “could have” “it is”, “I am”, “we have” and a handful of other potential contractions-to-be, and adjust accordingly.

12) It, There and Here

Phrases that start with “it”, “there”, or “here” followed by a form of the verb to be (it was, there are, here is) can often be rephrased to go directly to the subject.

Okay that was a fun and temporary diversion. Now back to drafting. 75,000 words written. I’m really hoping I can round this novel off with another 10,000 words.