We’re delighted to continue our series of posts on advice for writers with this article by Terri Giuliano Long about self-editing and refining your work. We met Terri through Twitter, and are very happy to have made her acquaintance.
Terri is a novelist and a teacher of writing in Boston, USA. Without further ado, here she is…
“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” – William Strunk
Writing, I once told my teacher, reminds me of hairstyling. He raised his brows – as if to say, really? – and shrugged. We writers tend to think of our work as artful and precious. I get this. I do. Still, the metaphor works for me. Given scissors, a two-year-old child can cut anyone’s hair. How well – that’s another story entirely. Ask any little girl whose big sister chopped off her bangs. Like hairstyling, writing is a craft. It’s nice to be talented, sure, but the real game-changers are precision, attention to detail, and practice.
Like a hairstylist, an illustrator, or a machinist, writers need to exercise discipline. This means cutting unnecessary words. Taut writing has energy and power – it pulls our message forward, creates rhythm and cadence, and makes our work shine, bringing it closer to art.
Here are 8 easy ways to cut unnecessary words from your sentences.
1) Delete redundant modifiers: word pairs, such as true fact, past history, and – my favorite – close proximity, are redundant. Facts are true, history is past, and persons or items in proximity to someone or something are close. Although I know better, writing the first sentence, I nearly typed personal favorite.
Speech patterns – the way we talk – are ingrained. People say personal favorite, maybe we say this ourselves, and we hear, internalize and write it.
Rule Number 1: unless you’re writing in a first person voice or creating dialogue, do not write the way you speak. I know what you’re thinking: good writing often sounds conversational. Yes, and those conversational passages are lovingly and carefully crafted. That’s why they’re so fluid.
A few more to avoid: free gift, terrible tragedy, end result, final outcome.
2) Delete redundant categories: this repeats the rule above, only instead of cutting redundant words we’re cutting redundant categories – for example, honest in character. The adjective honest modifies the category character. In this context, character is understood, so redundant. Honest does the job well.
Other examples: at an early time = early. Red in color = red. Large in size = large. Heavy in weight = heavy. Extreme in degree = extreme.
3) Edit redundant word pairs: replace redundant word pairs with a single word. Instead of any and all, write all. Rather than each and every, use the word each or every.
4) Cut the fat: edit wordy phrases; use single words whenever possible – for instance, rather than on the grounds that, write because. Instead of in the majority of cases, write usually.
Write clearly and directly. Notice the fat in the following sentence:
I personally think that a vacation in Bermuda is the way to go for a lot of families I know with young children, and they should consider traveling there.
Families with young children might consider a vacation in Bermuda.
Families with young children find Bermuda a great place to vacation.
A 29-word sentence just became 10 or 11. Use those extra 18 or 19 words to develop and clarify your point. Provide specific details. Give your audience reasons to travel to Bermuda. Your audience is more likely to be convinced if you give specific reasons for action than if you simply say they should act.
5) Eliminate unnecessary modifiers — words like kind of, sort of, type of, very, really, basically, for all intents and purposes, and actually say nothing essential, and thus weaken your prose.
Use intensifiers only if editing would change your meaning. Take a look at this sentence: I was very surprised by his exceedingly obnoxious behavior.
Which word or words would you cut? Take a look at the revised version:
I was surprised by his exceedingly obnoxious behavior. Cut the word very because this vague intensifier is extraneous; it doesn’t add any meaning.
If you cut the word exceedingly, however, your meaning changes: I was surprised by his obnoxious behavior. His behavior was not merely obnoxious. His behavior surprised because it was exceedingly obnoxious.
Revising to active voice also cuts fat: His extraordinarily obnoxious behavior surprised me.
For more please visit my blog post Two Rules Worth Breaking: Writer’s Bootcamp, Part 2.
6) Eliminate lengthy introductions: Here’s an example: It is important to note that we will have a test on Wednesday. Instead, write: We will have a test on Wednesday.
Because of the fact that it’s snowing, school will be cancelled.
Edit: School will be cancelled because of the snow.
7) Omit repetitive sentences or words that explain the obvious: It goes without saying that I understand your policy and that I intend to comply. If it goes without saying, don’t say it. Compare: I understand your policy and I intend to comply.
In narratives, obvious or unnecessary sentences can be harder to identify. Here’s an example: I saw the train pull away from the station. It was just leaving as I climbed onto the platform.
The second sentence tells us you saw the train pull away from the station, making the first unnecessary. This sentence tells us all we need to know:
The train was pulling away from the station as I climbed onto the platform.
As I climbed onto the platform, the train pulled away from the station.
The second revision is stronger because it uses the active voice. Also, the important event – the train pulling away – comes at the end of the sentence, where it has greater impact. The effect felt by the reader mirrors that felt by the protagonist. This subtle change in syntax creates greater emotional truth.
8 When possible, eliminate expletives: expletives – for instance, the word it or there followed by a to-be verb – can usually be edited out of a sentence.
It is my understanding that we will be tested weekly. Edit: I understand that we will be tested weekly.
There are two issues that we need to address. Edit: We need to address two issues.
When an expletive precedes a noun and relative clause introduced by that, which or who, the sentence can almost always be revised: It is the teacher who gives the test every week. Revise: The teacher gives the test every week.
Sometimes, expletives are used for emphasis. Example: It is necessary to bathe regularly. Here the explicative form emphasizes the word necessary.
Challenge yourself. Cut out the fat – and your sentences will shine.
Terri Giuliano Long teaches writing at Boston College and blogs about writing, writing tips and inspiration at www.tglong.com/blog. She is currently on a blog tour, discussing her novel, In Leah’s Wake. For information, please visit her website: http://www.tglong.com/tlong-news.htm
Great advice, Terri. Thank you for taking the time to write a detailed piece about editing for us. It’s very much appreciated and it’s been great to have met you.
Other iWriteReadRate articles you should take a look at:
Happy writing, reading and rating!
The iWriteReadRate Team
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