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.”

Every Word Counts Pt 1

Consider this two-part series a slightly better than rough draft version of a chapter from my upcoming book on writing. I’d love feedback.

Every Word Counts

What

Every Word Counts is my way of expressing two fundamental concepts of good writing:

1. Keep Writing Tight – The process of removing unnecessary words and redundancies from your writing.
2. Choose Optimum Words – The process of considering context, syntax, emotional content, and connotation for each word.

Why

Every reputable author and editor whose advice I’ve read advises keeping writing tight. This reason is insufficient to provoke change in your writing. An author should understand the root cause of an issue in order to incorporate it. However, it is useful to know you’re going to get feedback of “not tight enough” as a complaint and “your writing is tight” as a compliment.

If you send me a work for critique, I’ll mark through unnecessary words and phrases. A lot of writers will say, “Those extra words are my stylistic choice. Don’t cut them just to follow some obscure rule.” While I sympathize with that writer, the truth is I won’t notice those words if the piece works. The fact I’m commenting on the problem means it didn’t work.

Remember the only absolute rule of writing: You can do anything you want as long as it works.

The corollary is: If it doesn’t work, follow the relevant rule.

More important to understanding why you should use this rule is the theory behind it.

1. Concise writing conveys information more efficiently than loose writing. Fewer words mean you get your point across in less space.
2. Readers today have less patience and shorter attention spans than readers of the classics. Verbose prose risks losing them.
3. Tight writing allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story rather than paying attention to the writing.
4. Tight writing improves clarity. A scene is often a step by step set of instructions leading the reader from one important point to the next. Unnecessary words detract from the reader’s ability to discern those points.
5. Optimum word choice subtly guides the reader to the correct emotional state.
6. Optimum word choice adds depth to your writing and develops a sense of trust in your readers. If they see the care in which you picked each word, they’re more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt as to where you’re leading them.
7. Editors charge by the word ().

When

Every Word Counts should be your default technique. Use it unless you have a reason not to.

The beginning author must master this technique. I’m not saying you can’t experiment but becoming proficient at writing tightly and choosing optimum words will benefit you in the long run. It is not a horrible idea for you aggressively to pursue choosing better words and getting rid of words you don’t need.

While choosing the correct word (since “correct” takes into account a wide range of considerations) is always the best decision, the intermediate writer should consider a more nuanced approach when it comes to tight writing. You might want to use more words for the following reasons:

1. Pacing – Long sentences equal slow pace, and short sentences fast pace. In a fight scene, you’ll want to keep your writing extra tight. You can be more verbose when writing description.
2. Putting space between important points – While tight writing helps your reader keep points mentally organized, plot developments can lose impact if placed to closely together. A few extra words can heighten impact by adding space.
3. Unique voice – The downside of tight writing is that it leads to homogenous prose. Sometimes, it’s advantageous to have a character’s dialogue, first person narrative, or viewpoint scene stand out as unique. While a stoic character tends to be terse, a bureaucrat may tend to use more words.

Remember the fundamental concept behind straying from a guideline: the benefit you gain must be greater than the problem you create. Consider whether creating that space makes your writing better considering that it risks loss of understanding. Does that unique voice add layers to your characterization or does it distract the reader?

Now that I’ve convinced you, hopefully, that you need to follow my advice with Every Word Counts, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to learn how.

BrianWFoster’s Ninth Law of Writing

Ninth Law: Every Word Counts

One difference between an amateur writer and someone who has studied the craft is that the expert relentlessly eliminates unnecessary words.  You won’t see “all of the” in his work.  Redundant phrases are tossed out.  Sentences are rearranged to promote economy of expression.  Each and every word pulls its weight.

A difference between the master and the expert is that the true wordsmith not only utilizes brevity but chooses perfect expressions to set mood and develop character.  He considers emotional connotation.  His character might say “all of the,” but the inclusion of “of” tells the reader something about that character.

This principle is one of the reasons writing is so difficult to master.  Power of the Mages will consist of around 120,000 words.  It’s hard to string together the perfect sentence, much less an eighth of a million words.

I do not in any way, form, or fashion claim to be a master or even an expert.  I’m just someone who is striving to improve.  From my experience, I can tell you that the more I concentrate on my word choice, the better my writing becomes.