Edits By Knight

EditorHates EbK22
Things Your Editor Hates

Volume II: Verbosity

     Let’s face it: writing is, essentially, deciding which words to use, and in which order. Words are nice. Words are fun. And there are so many of them! So many cool words!

       But you can’t just use ALL the words. In fact, there are some words you really shouldn’t use, at least not often, like “really.” Agents and/or publishers often reject a manuscript because they think it’s “too long.” This is especially true for newer authors; many times, they won’t even peruse a pitch for a book over 50k words.

      Now, you could just leave this to your editor, but I’m just going to tell you now that deleting the same word over and over gets tedious very quickly.  If you’re in journalism, you could even lose your job over being too verbose! It’s generally a good idea to keep your editor happy, just as we do our best to keep you happy.

     The good news is that there are several tricks that you can use to pare down your word count, which often has the added bonus of improving readability; unnecessary words clutter up the narrative, so the story will flow better and be easier to read without them!

Unnecessary Details

     One of the best skills you can learn as a writer is “the most valuable of all talents, that of never using two words where one will do.” (Thomas Jefferson)

     The best illustration I have of this is the time I found this sentence in a manuscript I was editing:

        His white shirt showed up like a source of light against the darkness of the night.

I blinked, looked at it for a minute, then changed it to

        His white shirt glowed against the darkness of the night.

     I cut out six extraneous words, and the sentiment is conveyed more effectively. I like to think that the writer knew there was a word and just couldn’t think of it; of course, they could have been trying to hit a word count, and thought their editor wouldn’t notice (they will!)

     When you have the choice between a phrase and one word, when both give the same meaning, always go for the word. When someone takes a deep breath, you don’t need to specify that they’re breathing in. When you tell us that someone nodded their head, you don’t need to tell us that they nodded yes or in agreement; in fact, you don’t even need to specify that it’s their head that’s nodding. 

     Stop to consider if the extra word is needed.The reader will automatically assume that a character is breathing in when they take a breath, just as the native English-speaking reader knows that when a person nods, they are indicating agreement. (Of course, if you’re writing for an audience of a different culture, such as that of India, you may need to reevaluate which details to include.)

     This also applies to extraneous details and phrases; if the reader can infer a meaning without additional explanation, don’t insult their intelligence by spelling it out! Example: 

        The cowboy dismounted [from his horse] as soon as he saw the corral and [then] walked towards the barn.

In this case, the reader will know that “dismounted” refers to a horse; there’s no need to say that specifically. They will also be able to tell, without “then”, that the cowboy walks toward the barn after dismounting, simply because it’s written in that order. Keeping your narrative uncluttered with unnecessary words/phrases makes it easier to read and more engaging.

     Some writers also have a tendency to repeat certain details, as though they think we may have missed it. If you’re one of these, I’m here to tell you that readers are smart—unless you’re being deliberately vague, they’ll catch the details… so cut out those redundancies!

         Another great quote comes from Elmore Leonard: “I try to leave out the parts people skip.”

     Also, when you are tempted to use phrases like “and other things,” ask yourself whether it’s really necessary to tell us that there’s more stuff. Sometimes it’s best to leave these things to the imagination—there’s no need to be quite so thorough in your descriptions that you feel the need to mention that you haven’t mentioned everything!

Unnecessary Verbiage (Extra Words)

     Some words appear simply because we forget that we don’t need them. Often, words we would use in everyday conversation (to give our brains time to catch up with our mouths) can be effective in dialogue, but there’s usually no good reason to include them in the narrative. For example, adverbs of degree (words like so, very, really, and such) often serve no real purpose other than filler. Sometimes they can add emphasis, but if you overuse them it can cause a break in the flow of the story.

     Speaking of dialogue—as a general rule, you should not include filler words (like uh or er), except in rare cases. While we say them a lot when talking, reading them quickly grows tiresome. 

     Try not to repeat words like the, and cut out prepositions (of, for, etc.) Change The sound of the trumpet to The trumpet’s sound to streamline your story. Too many unnecessary words clutter up the narrative and can make it feel slightly clunky.

     You’re also going to want to look at your adjectives and adverbs. If you’re using more than one descriptive term for every noun or verb, your manuscript is going to be so pondersome and dense that no one will bother reading it unless they’re forced at gunpoint. Choose the best & cut the rest.

     Often, you can find a term that conveys the meaning you are trying to achieve without adding a descriptive word. For instance, instead of writing said softly, you can use murmured or whispered.

Passive Voice

     As a writer, you’re probably sick to death of hearing about the passive voice! However, there’s a reason this horse is beat so often; using direct action not only improves readability, it can help pare down your word count. Now, I’m not saying you should never use the passive voice, but it’s one of those things that can become frustrating to the reader if used too often.

     Who is performing the action in your sentence? Most of the time, you want that person (or thing) to be the subject of the sentence. Passive voice switches this around so that the subject of the sentence is being acted upon (thus making them a passive participant in the action.) Instead of “the song was sung by the girl,” write “The girl sung the song.” That’s two words gone, right there! Imagine if you had two passive constructions on every page, and your manuscript was 450 pages long; you’d cut out almost a thousand words, just by switching to the active voice.

Hopefully these tips will help you as you edit your Work In Progress, and on your next project going forward! Feel free to tweet me @EditsByKnight with any questions or comments you may have, and be sure to check out Volume I, on Dialogue!

For tips on writing effective dialogue, read Volume I

Find tips for the proper usage of commas in Volume III

If you’re a freelancer (or interested in becoming one) be sure to check out Freelancing: An Editor’s Journey for some tips and a more personal look at the trials–and rewards–of freelancing.