How To Write Better (Part 2): Fighting The Flab

Now that those tenses jump to your command, punctuation is under control, and syntax lined up and saluting, it’s time to move your writing to the next level. In this exciting episode, and in Part 3 (which, strange to relate, comes next), you will find guidelines to help you achieve that goal. These are not items that have bubbled, unbidden, to the surface of the minestrone soup that passes for my brain. They are the distillation of the best advice from professional editors, authors and academics.

Fighting The Flab is the easiest way to tighten up your writing and make it stronger. It involves deleting words or phrases that are not essential. However, you should resist any temptation to take the easy way out and do this at random. The results likely be disappointment (see what I mean?).

Adjectives and Adverbs
Writing which is very, very full of nifty, sparkling adjectives can become exhausting for the poor reader. A good policy is to use no more than one adjective per noun and to make a habit of using none as often as you can.
Adverbs are in a league of their own. Nasty, lily-livered creatures which will sap the zing right out of your prose and leave it gasping for life. Deal with them by putting “ly” in the Find box in Word. Ignore the “ly” words that are not adverbs, and make extensive use of the Delete key as you go through the document. There will be times when deleting the adverb won’t be possible without an impact on meaning. In that case, find an alternative form of words. If you can’t do that, then you may just have to put up with leaving the damn thing there, but that should be a rare occurrence. Here are a couple of examples from The Butterfly & The Bull, a novel which I wrote before I knew better.

“The rain eased slightly and the malls of Huntingtown appeared, materializing obscurely.” vs “The rain eased and the malls of Huntingtown materialized.”

“He got up as he spoke. The action was totally unlike the John I knew. It reminded me of a panther, readying itself for the hunt. I suddenly found myself staring down the barrel of what I assumed to be Povey’s pistol.” vs “He got up as he spoke. The action was unlike the John I knew. It reminded me of a panther, readying itself for the hunt. I found myself staring down the barrel of what I assumed to be Povey’s pistol.” (The paragraph needs further editing, but we’ll come to that later.)

Really, just don’t
There are words that seldom belong in story-writing, because of their tendency to dither or dilute. Top of the list are: some, somehow, somewhat, almost, quite, just, (as in “he had just come to the table), very, actually, really. Words that have become worn out by overuse should also be avoided: stunning, beautiful, awesome, ultimate, literally, arguably, for example. Use the Find function and the Delete key to great effect here, too.

Repetition
This comes in various guises–repetition of words, repetition of effects (like two sentences describing the same thing, or two characters described in the same way), repetition of emotion (showing the emotion and telling the reader about it at the same time), and plot-related repetition (like having several characters all playing the same role in your hero’s life, when all you need is one). Please note the repeated repetition of repetition in the previous sentence.
Dealing with repetition can be a challenge. At the end of this series, we will analyze a piece of work which contains the full range of flab, and all may become clear at that point.

Trusting your readers
Writers (novices, in particular) often overwrite in other ways. A visceral urge to make sure that readers see every action in HD and Dolby Audio, leads to a muddle of detail which has the opposite effect.
“The phone rang. Ebenezer stood up, pushed his chair back, turned and walked over to the phone stand. He picked up the phone. ‘Hello,’ he said.” vs “The phone rang. ‘Hello,’ Ebenezer said.”

Repetition (see above) applies here, too. If you describe two characters facing one another across a bed and then write, “Gertrude gazed across the bed at Englebert,” then you’re telling us more than we need to know. “Gertrude gazed at Englebert,” will do fine.

In the same way, describing a character with clenched fists and then telling us that she spoke “angrily,” gives us a double dose of information.

Summary
The “rule” that applies here is: be merciless when it comes to self-editing your work. Better to pare to the bone and add in where needed, rather than leave your prose hanging in folds of flab from its waistband.

Next up: Is your syntax showing? Are you telling when you should be showing? Are you committing the sin of head hopping? It will all be there, in How to Write Better (Part 3).

1 Comment

Filed under Writing

One response to “How To Write Better (Part 2): Fighting The Flab

  1. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. It is wicked helpful.

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