My mother is an editor and a former English teacher. Now, granted, she edits medical manuscripts rather than young adult novels, but it’s fair to say my elementary school essays got more intense critique than most. I also live in a town with a wonderful writing non-profit where I take classes and participate in writing workshops. I know many writers don’t have easy access to such resources, so I’m going to write a few blog posts to share some of what I’ve learned from them.
It’s always smart to be skeptical of writing advice, so take all of this with a grain of salt. None of these are hard fast rules that can never be broken. I am not the final judge of what is acceptable or best. You do you. I’m just a writer passing along some tips that have helped me.
Okay, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about TIGHT PROSE.
Why should you care about tightening your prose? Well, for one thing, tighter prose = lower word count.
Is your book too long, but you don’t know how to shorten it because every scene is essential? Well, you might be able to trim thousands of words without cutting any scenes. I once cut nearly 8000 words during a revision pass without removing a single scene. In fact, I added a few.
Also, tighter, more streamlined prose helps prevent readers from getting confused or bored. Of course, you don’t want every sentence short and punchy–and I am clearly a sucker for long sentences full of commas and em-dashes, even though I can’t figure out how to do them on this website– but if a manuscript is cluttered with excess descriptors and unwieldy phrases, readers may struggle to follow the story. And what good are all those pretty words if no one actually reads them?
Why else? Well, agents and editors like it. Don’t believe me? A quick google search of “agents like tight prose” brought up this helpful blog post from the esteemed Kristin Nelson at the Nelson Agency.
Tight prose keeps the story moving along and indicates to agents and editors that you’ve put in the work to revise and proofread carefully before submitting.
Okay, so what am I even talking about? Do I want you to make all your sentences short and punchy? No. Do I want you to emulate Hemingway? No. Will I demand you delete every adjective? No.
Shorter isn’t always better. Commas aren’t evil. Gavel.
What I’m talking about is looking at your starting point, then taking a step back to see if there are ways to preserve your voice while cutting words that aren’t doing anything, and to ask yourself, truly, whether every word in your manuscript is pulling its weight. If it is, great! But I encourage everyone, at least once, to print out a page of your writing and get merciless with a red pen, just to see how concise you can make it. We’ll call it an experiment.
Suggestion Number 1: Cut Useless Filler Words
Some words rarely add value. Ex: just, that, almost, nearly, began to, started to. In most cases, they’re fluff and can be deleted. And in phrases like stood up, sat down, nodded her head, the second word is self-explanatory. Of course your character stood up. Unless she’s in a military formation, she isn’t going to stand down. And what else will a character nod, besides her head? Stood, sat, nodded-– they do the trick.
Let’s see what this looks like in a few example sentences.
ORIGINAL: She began to stand up when she saw that Jason was walking toward her very quickly. 16 words
TIGHTER: She stood when she saw Jason walking toward her quickly. 10 words
(Self call-out: In the very first draft I ever wrote, I used “that” 1110 times and” just” 182 times. Hand me the cone of shame.)
Suggestion Number 2: Can you say it in fewer words?
When I look over my work, I often find sentences that are unnecessarily complicated for absolutely no reason. I can usually cut a few thousand words just by rearranging phrases.
ORIGINAL: All of them were so busy trying to look brave that none of them saw the monster peering over the stone wall of the courtyard. 25 words
TIGHTER: They were so busy trying to look brave, no one saw the monster peering over the courtyard’s stone wall. 19 words
MORE ORIGINALS: The shoe on her left foot was wet. The door to the bedroom stayed closed. All of the clothes that she owned were pink. Total: 24 words
TIGHTER: Her left shoe was wet. The bedroom door stayed closed. All her clothing was pink. Total: 15 words
Suggestion Number 3: Trim Excess Descriptors
This is my achilles heel, folks. My writing teacher often reminds me to “Delete one descriptor from every sentence… Then go back and delete a few more.” We writers love words, especially descriptive words. They allow us to paint a picture, to immerse readers in the worlds we create. But sometimes (let’s be honest, much of the time) we get carried away.
ORIGINAL: Her soft, brown, fuzzy sweater rubbed against her smooth pale skin, making her think of the dark, cold, long winters she had spent sitting in front of her boyfriend’s bright, hot, crackling fireplace. 33 words
There’s nothing wrong with any of those descriptors, but with so many, the sentence became long and unwieldy. Plus, readers are… you know… people, and they have life experience. They know sweaters are soft and fires are hot. Set the scene, choose your words carefully, and they’ll fill in the rest. Trust readers.
TIGHTER: Her fuzzy brown sweater rubbed against her skin, reminding her of long winters spent in front of her boyfriend’s crackling fireplace. 21 words
Suggestion Number 4: Watch for -ing
Another quick and easy way to tighten prose and make your sentences feel more active is to watch out for was/am/is/were +ing. I’m guilty of this a lot, and it’s something I need to specifically hunt for when I revise, but it gets easier to avoid once you realize you’re doing it.
ORIGINALS: The girl was running across the field. One boy is sitting on the ground. The trees were swaying in the wind. 21 words
TIGHTER: The girl ran across the field. One boy sits on the ground. The trees swayed in the wind. 18 words
Of course, sometimes you want to use these for emphasis. For example:
As the door creaks open, I realize Jamie is clutching a bloody knife.
feels more dramatic than:
As the door creaks open, I realize Jamie clutches a bloody knife.
Be strategic, that’s all I’m saying.
Okay, I have revising and critiquing to do, so that’s it for now! Next time, I’ll talk about Voice and Filtering.