The Fiction Editing Files – On Writing Lean and Mean

Categories Editing tips

The old adage „Every word counts“ still applies. Agents won’t plough throw waffle, nor will the reader. Easier said than done, though. If you’re an over-writer, which I am, a crucial part of editing is cutting through the creepers, making sure your plot and characters can dazzle and shine.

  • Search your manuscript for those instants where you combined a speech tag “she said” with an action beat. “You’re a real jerk,” she said and tossed her hair. Either let her say it or let her toss her hair if she really has to. Never both, it makes for an incredible amount of unnecessary words.
  • Use clear verb forms. In the first draft, my first point read “By doing a search for…” instead of search. Nope. Waffle. Cut it out. Be as active as possible. Not only does it focus your writing, but it also cuts down your word count.
  • Adverbs. They exist for a reason, but all too often they block prime real estate when they should not. If I read things like this “I’ll kill you,” he said menacingly, I feel a growl coming on. “We need to go,” he said, slowly, as if he didn’t believe himself – this is better as it adds an extra meaning, not contained in the statement. There might still be a shorter way of expressing this, but I hope you get my drift.
  • Fillers – a bit, some, sort of – if they appear in dialogue, they might add voice. Outside of dialogue they usually do not, unless you’re writing in deep penetration and such mannerisms are part of your voice (I’ll come to voice in another blog post).
  • Over-descriptiveness. I’m sure you’re familiar with the term “telling detail”? No? Basically, it means you give the reader a few pointers as a springboard for their imagination. They can build the rest of the scene themselves. If you also appeal to more senses than the eye, the image will stick even better.
    Here’s an example from “Down the Hatch”, the sequel to “In My Attic.”
    “Accompanied by the clanking of cowbells, I entered the gift shop. Cool, fresh air fanned my cheeks. The draft was saturated with the scents of lavender potpourri, blended with the faintest of mouldy whiffs.”
    A little bit further down our protagonist gets surprised by a dark figure (must have shadowy figures in mysteries!)
    “With a yelp, I backed into the nearest shelf. I sensed something woolly at my back. That was reassuring, it meant I had not hit the china mugs.”

With those few pointers, the reader should have a reasonably clear idea of what sort of place the protagonist finds herself in. I give a few more details in the novel, but that’s for a reason – I’m writing a mystery, and there’s a clue hidden here. But the principle should be clear – try to work out what best carries across the image you’re seeing, appeal to all senses if you can and be as focused as you can.

Not only does it save on words, but it also gives your readers more freedom to built their own worlds.


3 thoughts on “The Fiction Editing Files – On Writing Lean and Mean

  1. I know “Liège waffle”, but what is “throw waffle”, and why would agents plough it?

    (You do this on purpose, don’t you? 😉

    I’m not sure I completely agree on not combining speech tags with action beats. It can be used for good effect, as when someone *says* something — only to immediately *do* the opposite.

    1. Hi,
      thank you for responding!
      I do it on purpose, yes, but I’m not trying to confuse anybody. As much as I love waffles, this waffle as in jabber, talk too much without meaning etc. I don’t like. Berk. No emojis on WordPress.
      As to speech tags, I agree there might be exceptions. The one you mention certainly qualifies. However, my main point was to draw
      attention to this approach which – if not done for a special purpose – CAN claim quite a lot of real estate.

      1. My pleasure!

        My (apparently too well concealed) point was actually not about the two meanings of “waffle” but about you writing “throw” where I think you meant “through”.

        No emojis in WordPress? 🤔 Then there will be none in this paragraph. Use good old emoticons instead! 🙂

        OK, point taken: generally, adding a dialogue tag where you have an action beat anyway is redundant. However, some people seem to be confused with action beats used for attribution; I’ve seen this in comments on Wattpad. That the person acting is the same person speaking in the same paragraph is clear to you and me, but surprisingly not to everybody.

        Maybe it’s an international thing. Dialogue formatting can be very different in other languages, so maybe action beats used for attribution are also not universally known.

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