Today I’m at SEEKERVILLE, a supportive Writing Community that is celebrating their 5th birthday. They kindly invited me to join in the celebration, so I hope after you’re finished today’s post on tight prose you might drop in (and maybe WIN a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus!) I’m posting on Reader Empathy: Catch It & Keep It.
While I’m there, author and Freelance Editor Jodie Renner is bringing us a lesson in prose tightening! Jodie specializes in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction, as well as YA, mainstream and historical fiction. I know this can be a trouble area, especially during action scenes where there’s a lot of body movement and emotions being conveyed. So please read on to see the before and after as Jodie gets rid of words to distill meaning!
by Jodie Renner, freelance editor, @JodieRennerEd
One of my main jobs as a fiction editor is to teach novelists how to streamline their writing and take out all those little words cluttering up their prose, getting in the way of meaning, slowing down the pacing, and impeding reader enjoyment of the story.
For many writers, it takes practice to break old business or academic writing habits and learn to write in a more casual, to-the-point, compelling way for fiction. Many of my newbie novelist clients are highly educated professionals, so they especially have to unlearn overly correct, formal writing habits.
Here’s a short example of overly erudite writing, from a novel I edited years ago, with the name changed:
Before: Jason recommenced after the abrupt interruption, with a scowl in the direction of its origin.
After: Jason scowled at the interruption, then continued.
As the editor, I suggested the “after” rewording, then commented in the margin, about my suggestion: “Less wordy, more direct. No need to say “abrupt interruption,” as an interruption is by nature abrupt. And it’s a given that his scowl would be in the direction of the origin of the interruption.”
Here are more examples of taking out unnecessary words for better flow. I’ve adapted them from my editing, but changed the names and details to provide anonymity for the writers. Of course there are often several different ways to pare a sentence down, and these are just possible solutions.
Before: She looked quickly down the narrow street in the direction they had come.
After: She glanced back down the narrow street.
Before: “Excuse us for a moment,” Gordon said, through clenched teeth. When they were far enough from the group so they could speak without being heard, he whispered, “What the hell are you doing?
After: “Excuse us for a moment,” Gordon said, through clenched teeth. When they were out of earshot, he whispered, “What the hell are you doing?”
Before: Charles grabbed her arm and pulled her bodily to the edge of the street out of the path of the oncoming car.
After: Charles yanked her out of the path of the oncoming car.
Before: As soon as Chris started to rise, Nathan saw it as an indication he was going to follow, and started off back in the direction of the elevator, this time worrying less about his silence and more about haste.
After: As soon as Chris started to rise, Nathan turned and hurried toward the elevator.
Before: The car drove slowly through the large complex heading in the direction of a secluded building at the back of the facility. It was located on the shore of the river. The vehicle came to a stop next to the entrance to the building.
After: They drove slowly through the large complex toward a secluded building by the river and stopped next to the entrance.
Before: The General was red with fury, his face contorted and looking more like a grotesque mask than being part of a human face. He made no effort to respond.
After: The General was red with fury, his face contorted like a grotesque mask. He made no effort to respond.
Before: As Brad spoke, Katelyn raised up the small burlap shoulder bag she had been wearing since they left the apartment, shaking it to ensure that Gerry would see it—the documents and electronic storage devices that it contained jostling around in its disorganized interior.
After: As Brad spoke, Katelyn raised her shoulder bag in the air, shaking it so Gerry could see it, causing the documents and electronic storage devices to jostle around inside.
Before: Kevin looked quickly back at Tyler, who dropped his arm holding the gun and gave a purposeful glance first to his left and then his right. He looked back in their direction, stared fiercely for a moment, and began walking calmly, slowly, towards them.
After: Kevin looked back at Tyler, who lowered the gun and glanced both ways. He looked back at them, glared at them for a moment, then began walking slowly towards them.
You Be the Editor:It’s your turn. Here are five more unrelated cluttered sentences. Can you help us smooth them out?
1. “You must never touch anything in this room if I don’t tell you to or if I haven’t given permission,” he said.
2. Donna glanced up at the imposing house and examined the ornate façade of the residence.
3. Derek looked over at her as well, a questioning expression painted across his face.
4. Jack stared incredulously at the man. He felt bile rush into his throat as his unbridled hatred surged into his conscious mind.
5. “So you killed Daniel too,” Linda spat, her emotions instantly changing from fearfulness to more aggressiveness. If she had a weapon, she would kill the man right then and there.
Ha, I tell you after writing The Emotion Thesaurus, I am itching to get rid of those telling emotions and instead make the emotional showing more prominent, and I bet you guys are too! Can’t wait to see what you come up with!
You can find Jodie at her website or group blog, Crime Fiction Collective. Her ebooks, Writing a Killer Thriller and Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power are part of her An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Series.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.