Cutting the Extra from Your Manuscript
Not to offend anyone, but the truth is, I don’t like verbose writing. I didn’t say I don’t like a long book, and I’m not talking about elegant literary writing. Rather, it’s a matter of less is more in some cases. Put bluntly, I dislike clunky prose. Every author develops their writing style with practice. No one sits down for the first time to have pure beauty flow from their pen. But as writers, we add a lot of filler language. It’s because that’s how we talk. And that kind of writing puts extra in a novel. And not in a good way. After years of using poetry in teaching creative writing classes, I developed a hyper-awareness of the extra. Most of my classes were 45 minutes to an hour long, so there wasn’t a lot of time for in-depth story writing skills. Especially since I was only there once a week. Consequently, I used poetry to bring out my students’ voices. Poetry is precise. It’s about choosing the word that conveys the meaning. So, when a student wanted to share something deeply personal in their writing, it required effort to find the best words. This had side effects on me as a reader and a writer. I became sensitive to passive verb phrases. Especially repetitive, passive verb phrases. For instance, the helping verb seemed. The character seemed to do this or seemed to do that. Well, did he, or didn’t he? And do we really need to know what he seemed to do several times in the same chapter? I’m not saying there isn’t a time or place for this kind of writing. But I recently lay aside a book after slogging through 4 chapters, trying to convince myself it would get better. Finally, I decided there was no way I was wading through this 100,000-word novel if it was all written in such passive language. Sadly, this might have been an entertaining story, but the prose was too cumbersome to stick with. I enjoy active sentence structure that moves the story and me along. I’m not pointing fingers or judging other authors. As I said above, we all develop our writing style as we go. And as a writing coach, I want my writers to make the words on the page compelling. For this reason, I’m sharing some tips I learned from all those years of poetry classes, ways of cutting the wordiness from your manuscript to help it flow. First, let’s look at this boring and awkward sentence. Not wrong. Simply awkward.
She was walking quickly to the car. If this were in a murder mystery, it would slow the reader's pace. Maybe the “she” has left the bar and senses a presence behind her. She wants to get out of there fast. The writer could say, She walked quickly to the car. With the more active verb walked replacing the passive was walking, the flow picks up. But does it put the image of a frightened woman’s movements into your mind? How about, She hurried to the car? This is an easy example. But what do you do when you’ve written fifty to a hundred thousand words, and you don’t know if some of this passive language has crept into your manuscript? Below, I’ve shared a LONG list of words I try to cut from my writing. And I know what you’re going to say. “I need these words!” This is true. The word “simply” is on this list, yet I used it in a sentence in this post. I’m not saying cut them altogether. But do a search and see how many times you’ve used that single word in a 70,000-word manuscript, and you might find it would serve you better to cut it and put more thought into the image, emotion, or information you’re trying to express. This list is my personal stumbling block of go-tos when I’m in drafting and composition mode. The rewriting is not easy and is time-consuming, but worth it.
If you read this list and identify with the overuse of the words, great. Now go rewrite. But if you’re looking at it and fear I’ve asked you to sacrifice your firstborn, I’d be happy to help. Send me a first chapter and I’ll take a look. And if you feel you need more assistance after that, we can map out a plan for my coaching services and cut the extra from your manuscript.