Guest Post by C. S. Lakin
Fat. Unless we are one of the lucky few with fast metabolisms who can ingest innumerable milkshakes and French fries without gaining an ounce, most of us (admit it) need to trim some fat from our bodies. It’s a healthy thing to do.
Similarly, our writing sometimes gets “a little soft around the waist.” Some writers tend to “pad” their novels or articles with quite a bit of excess poundage, and we all know how we feel lugging around an unwanted bit of weight. It drags us down, slows our pace, and gets in our way when we want to do simple things, like reach down and tie our shoes. Sometimes we have no idea how those extra pounds got there. And so, like sneaky calories, many unwanted words and phrases find their way into our writing unnoticed. And they bog it down.
Happily, it’s not all that hard to trim the fat off a piece of writing compared to shedding unwanted pounds off our bodies. Yet, trying to trim down and shape up all those sentences can be a source of discouragement and frustration.
But take heart! Unlike fad diets, there are plenty of easy (painless) ways to trim the fat. That’s not to say these tips are a cure-all for major flaws in a story, article, or essay. But similar to the get-in-shape-fast programs, here are some simple things writers can do to tighten sentences, shed unwanted words, and tone and shape the whole “body” of work.
Eliminate fatty words from your “diet.” Make a list of your weasel words. Those are the words you throw in out of habit. Often they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to. Grab a random page of your document and see if you can eliminate at least one or two words from every sentence. It may not be possible, but it’s a good exercise. If the word doesn’t add importance to a sentence, it should go. Then attack the rest of your novel.
Reword passive voice where possible. Whether referring to general passive (“The food was eaten by me” instead of “I ate the food”) or present progressive passive (“The food is being served” instead of “the waiters served the food”), most of the time a sentence will be stronger if the passive voice is avoided. An easy way to seek and destroy unwanted passive construction is do a “find” for ing, was, is, it was, and there was, to name a few.
Avoid circumlocution. I just love that word, so I have to use it. Don’t use two words when one will do. Don’t use four when three will do. I have a tendency to express things in pairs of words. Sometimes it’s exactly what I need, but other times I am basically being redundant and repetitive (I wrote that on purpose to prove my point, really!). If two adjectives are similar, pick the best one and toss the other.
Search and destroy repetition. We tend to repeat words, phrases, or ideas in the same paragraph. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do, to drive home a point, perhaps in summary at the end of a section or subheading. But writers often try to say the same thing in a different way, and instead of adding new material they are essentially rehashing what they’ve already said. One great way to catch those repetitive words is to hear your piece read to you aloud.
If you’re the kind of writer that needs to “add weight” to your skimpy novel, you have a different challenge, and the problem won’t be solved by ignoring all the above tips. Remember, it’s the unwanted fat you want to eliminate. Be sure what you add to a skimpy novel is muscle, not fat. And for the rest of us who overwrite, be reassured that by implementing these easy tips, you can help trim those unwanted “pounds” from your pages.
C. S. Lakin has written thirteen novels in various genres, which includes her seven-book fantasy series The Gates of Heaven and the Zondervan award-winning novel Someone to Blame. She works full-time as a copyeditor and writing coach, and teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her blog Live Write Thrive (www.livewritethrive.com), which was chosen as one of the top ten writing blogs for 2012 by Write to Done. She also hosts multiday writing workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area featuring top authors like James Scott Bell and Davis Bunn (see www.writingforlifeworkshops.com), with ACFW member discounts offered. You can connect with her on Twitter (@cslakin) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/C.S.Lakin.Author).