HOW TO CUT WORDS WITHOUT LOSING ANYTHING
One of the key edits to complete when polishing a manuscript is a ‘wordiness’ edit. Cicero said, ‘Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.’ Whether you’re looking to reduce your word count or not, your prose will be more effective if you eliminate extraneous verbiage. In this blog post, we’ll look at different kinds of unnecessary words and ask whether you can take this kind of edit too far.
Repetition is rarely intentional, but we often say the same thing twice without realising it. ‘He lifted the box onto the surface, heaving it up.’ Here, ‘lifted’ and ‘heaved’ describe a single action, so you should choose one or the other. I often see writers follow up a showing sentence with a telling sentence, but this is effectively repetition. For example, ‘Frost had settled on the ground, and Joanna hugged her coat around herself as she walked. It was a cold day, and she was freezing.’ The first (showing) sentence is enough.
A word is redundant if it is already conveyed by the rest of the sentence. For example, ‘a small size 6 dress’. All size 6 dresses are small, so this adjective should be cut. You can also have redundant phrases: ‘The morning after the conference, Dennis woke up and sighed internally as he remembered the conference.’ Here, you could cut the first clause, because the rest of the sentence suggests that it is the morning after the conference!
INTENSIFIERS, SOFTENERS, AND ADVERBS
When texting, tweeting, or even writing an informal blog post, it’s common to use intensifiers like ‘very’, ‘really’, and ‘extremely’, and softeners like ‘quite’, ‘pretty’, and ‘a bit’. In fiction, you should almost always cut these and find a more precise adjective. ‘Really big’ becomes ‘huge’. ‘Pretty big’ becomes ‘large’. You should also cut as many adverbs as possible and find a more precise verb. ‘Smiles broadly’ becomes ‘grins’.
Nouns and verbs contribute more to a sentence than adjectives, so try to limit how many of these you use too. Using multiple adjectives to describe one thing can create a less distinct image or sense in the reader’s mind – keep your sentences direct.
CONVOLUTED SENTENCE STRUCTURE
Often it’s not that a particular word is unnecessary but that you’re not using the most economical sentence structure. To continue with the frost example: ‘As she walked, and seeing frost which must have settled on the ground overnight, Joanna took hold of her coat and hugged it around herself.’ Here, you get the sense that the writer is over-thinking the sentence. Simplicity is a good thing.
IS LESS ALWAYS MORE?
It may be that a degree of wordiness works for your manuscript. Perhaps you’re trying to create a conversational voice or conform to certain genre conventions (fantasy novels tend to contain lots of adverbs, for example). Take into account genre, rhythm, and the voice of your POV character or narrator as you tighten and trim.
When you’re completely ruthless with your prose, you can end up with a clipped or stunted tone. Reread your edited manuscript after getting some distance from it so you can spot any places where that intensifier or avoidable adverb you cut feels absent. Economical prose is always stronger than baggy prose, but every edit requires a level of balance.
I’ll end with a concise quote from Truman Capote: ‘I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.’