Every Word Counts Pt 2

In this post, I discussed the What, Why, and When of Every Word Counts. The post below concludes the series.

How

Get rid of all of the words in the sentence that you don’t need.

Let’s take a look at the sentence above:

• “Get rid of” is wordy. Seems like we could replace it with something like “Remove.”
• The “of” after “all” is superfluous.
• Is the phrase “in the sentence” important? Aren’t most words in a sentence, and does it matter if the words are in a paragraph or on a page instead? If I get rid of it (Oops, scratch that, “remove” it), the effect is stronger.
• “That you don’t need” seems wordy. How about simply “unnecessary?”

That gives us:

Remove all the unnecessary words.

Much better, but not quite there:

• I’m not sure that “remove” is a strong enough statement. “Delete” seems more forceful.
• Why do I need “all?” It’s a waste of good bytes.

Delete unnecessary words.

There. Clear, concise, strong — exactly what I wanted.

To keep your writing tight:

• Get rid of weasel words and phrases. Almost, could, kind of, not quite — these add nothing.
• Examine all adverbs. Read the sentence without it. If the meaning isn’t changed, delete the adverb. Words like “very” that modify an amount to a non-specific degree are the worst offenders.
• Watch for extraneous words. That, all, some — these can often be removed without impacting meaning.
• Watch for extraneous phrases. If it doesn’t change the meaning of it… See, right there. What’s the difference between “meaning of it” and “meaning?” It’s as plain to see as the nose on my face. Where else, exactly, would my nose be? Get rid of “on my face.” It’s not needed at all. Speaking of which, neither is “at all.”
• Get rid of redundancies that you don’t need. Get it? Redundancies that you don’t need?
• Get rid of pleonasms (a word/phrase that, when removed, doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence). At dinner last night, I told Little Man, “Let your food cool down before you eat it.” I immediately felt like a horrible parent teaching my child that pleonasms are okay. I muttered, “What’s the difference between ‘cool down’ and ‘cool’?” I corrected my admonition to, “Let you food cool before you eat it.”

To choose the optimum words:

• Consider context, connotation, and mood for each word.
• Check out this list of feeling words. Scatter these words throughout your scene to establish emotional context.
• Be active. Words like began, started, had, and was steal a sense of immediacy from your writing.
• Specific is better than vague. Have your character drive a Honda Civic, not a car — though I’d say there’s not much difference in that example considering how generic… Never mind.
• Filter emotions not actions. You want the reader to understand what a given event means to your character from an emotional standpoint. “Joe’s eyes watered as he read the letter from his girlfriend” shows the reader that the letter produced an emotional response that is either tremendously joyful or sad depending on the context. Writing “Joe watched the mail carrier place the letter in the box” adds nothing. If we’re in Joe’s POV, we know he watched the events. Simply write “The letter carrier placed the letter in the box.”

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3 thoughts on “Every Word Counts Pt 2

  1. You’re the published author, I’m not–but you asked for opinions. It doesn’t matter whether I’m right or…right: In my family, I’m almost as famous for my opinions as I am for my nagging. 🙂

    This 2-part blog seems to be better suited for clear, concise report/letter writing. I feel like I’m listening to Mr. Spock in a business meeting instead of experiencing Captain Kirk fighting for the fate of his crew.

    I’m not saying it’s entirely Spartan. I can see your point about Joe watching the mail carrier place the letter in the box as opposed to his eyes watering when he read the letter.

    “It’s as plain to see as the nose on my face” differs from “it’s as plain to see as my nose.” Is it better to use a partial cliche rather than replace it? We could be talking about the difference between a plain nose and a pretty one. If the correction is, “It’s as plain to see as the nose,” is it plain to see your nose or mine? Mine is hard to see without a mirror. What I see of it isn’t what the guy across from me sees. I’m not sure I really want to see what he sees in it.

    The word “almost” can mean the difference between life and death. “It’s like ‘almost’ jumping over the Grand Canyon,” isn’t the same as “It’s like jumping over the Grand Canyon.” Evel Knievel would have been painfully aware of the difference between the two.

    What’s the difference between “cool down” and “cool” in a sentence? I slide over the words “cool down before” because that’s how my mother would say it. I stop at “cool before.” Had my mother said it that way, my young Sci-Fi loving mind would have wondered if I’d watched “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (one) too many times.

    You usually have such an admirable way of presenting ideas. In this case, I think you’re trying to oversimplify and/or cut too many corners.

    • Opinions are good even when they disagree with mine. In this case, it helps me to refine my message.

      You got out of it: Strip your story to the bare essentials, including emotion.

      What I meant to convey was: Strip your story to the bare essentials so that the emotion can shine through. Wasted words don’t help to convey emotion; they just clog the works to make everything you’re trying to convey harder to understand.

      It’s best not to use cliches at all. If you do use them and decide to modify them, you must be careful. Subverting expectations can be a good tactic.

      I also never meant to advocate removing necessary words, only to be wary of words and phrases that take up space without adding flavor or clarity.

      Whether the eyes skip something is not as important as the fact that the word should not be there. Perhaps one excess word here or there doesn’t detract much from your writing, but it’s a mistake (unless done on purpose). Enough mistakes build to impact the overall quality of your writing.

      Thanks for the input. It will help me refine the final version!

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