Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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by Shaunna Privratsky
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Put your writing on a diet! In On Writing, Stephen King says the most important piece of writing advice he was ever given was "cut everything by 10%." For example, if you write a 3,000-word short story or article, leave out 300 words.
How do you know which words to excise? In addition to unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, pare down overlong description, rambling dialogue and any redundancy. Less is more when you are trying to sell your work.
Quality writing is streamlined and says exactly what the author intended. Learn to spot the potential trouble spots and you'll be able to eliminate excess words quickly and easily.
Description is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, telling description is the backbone of stories and adds dimension and depth. Yet too much dulls the reader's interest and can lead to a hasty rejection.
How much is too much? Practice, reading and intuition comes into play. Read your piece aloud, concentrating on description. Do you take three paragraphs to describe the heroine's flaming red hair and china-blue eyes? Have you written over-enthusiastically about all eighteen rooms of your haunted mansion? Have you failed to provide adequate details about your hero? Are we left wondering about his background or motivation?
No matter how brilliant your portrayals, overdoing it spoils a perfectly fine story. Anything that stops the flow should be eliminated. To get a feel for description handled properly, read some of your favorite author's books. See how a published writer balances on the hairbreadth between too little and too much.
Dialogue is another tricky area. A conversation without direction will snuff out the spark of your story. Use dialogue to advance the plot or situation, reveal character traits and back-story. Cut any extraneous words or conversations that don't have a purpose.
Listen to real-life conversations to get a feel for genuine dialogue. Eavesdrop in crowded malls, restaurants or coffee shops. People generally don't speak in complete sentences or with perfect grammar. Read your discourse aloud and listen for stilted sentences or drawn out conversations that go nowhere.
Expel any redundant phrases or sentences you discover. Saying something twice, even if you rephrase it with different words, adds needless weight. It also weakens the original statement. Cutting out unnecessary words makes your piece more succinct and ready for publication.
The danger of redundancy is that you're repeating yourself. You are saying the same thing in different words. You are paraphrasing yourself. Although you vary the individual words, the meaning is essentially the same. In short, you sound like a broken record or a CD with a scratch.
Whew! That is the most redundancy I've seen since I was a newbie writer. The preceding paragraph is a prime example of what not to do.
Redundancy is sometimes the hardest to root out and destroy. You may start a paragraph with a great statement, but before moving on to your supporting points you feel you should explain the statement a bit further, just to make sure your reader understands what you meant.
It is like saying the sky is blue. That is to say, it resembles my favorite pair of worn denim jeans. Not too dark, but just slightly faded with soft white clouds wisping across it.
The previous paragraph would begin much stronger and lighter if you simply stated "The denim blue sky sported wispy white clouds." The verb is active, the description minimal but specific and you have removed all redundancy.
How do you avoid the trap of redundancy? Simply state what you mean the first time. Start with your point or idea, and then back it up with supporting facts. Don't belabor the point as if you were trying to imprint it on your audience's mind.
It may take a few rounds of revision to spot redundancy in your manuscript. A fresh set of eyes may spot it easier. Look for telltale phrases like; "in other words", "what I meant was", or "to put it another way."
Another reason to avoid redundant phrases or words is it insults your reader's intelligence. In effect you're telling them they aren't smart enough to figure out what you're trying to say, so you spell it out for them. Again. A big redundant "no-no."
The final reason to cut redundancy is this: it shows you are an amateur. Professional writers learn to streamline sentences and avoid the excess of redundancy.
The next time you edit your work, remember to watch out for rotund redundancy and get rid of it faster than a melting, 967-calorie chocolate eclair. Don't let your message go to waste.
Cutting the fat from your manuscripts needn't be a painful process. As you make your final revisions, review your use of adverbs and adjectives. Balance your description, and dialogue for a pleasing flow. Expel any signs of redundancy. You'll be left with a manuscript in fighting trim, ready to submit and earn you a sale. Fewer words really do mean bigger bucks.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Shaunna Privratsky is a fulltime author who juggles her time between writing, reading, caring for her family, and shoveling snow. Please visit The Writer Within at http://shaunna67.tripod.com and sign up for the free newsletters.