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.


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