We love writers.
We love their creativity, storytelling skills, determination, discipline, and devotion to words and their proper use.
We love them even more when they practice the art of economy in writing. It’s a competency, however, that takes time and effort to master.
Most of us recognize wordiness when we see it in the work of others. It’s a bit harder to rein in, though, when we put our own words and stories to paper.
In some cases, wordiness is a matter of “padding the plot,” or adding quantity without substance. Too often we write more than needs to be conveyed when less almost always is preferred to communicate effectively.
We see it often in manuscripts, particularly when authors attempt to rely on jargon and cliches to carry their message. It’s also present when redundancy creeps into writing.
So, how can we eliminate wordiness while keeping our plots, characters, and continuity active and entertaining?
- Be relentless in self-editing. Prosecute each sentence and paragraph as if those extra words were crimes against literature. Did John and Mary both see the apparition? Nope. John and Mary saw the apparition.
- Write only what absolutely needs to be written. Don’t waste your readers’ time. Were there a Papa John’s, a Starbuck’s, a Home Depot, and a Great Clips at First and Main streets, the scene of the accident? Sure, but it’s a bit overdone to compile a list of retailers. Simply say: The accident occurred at the busy intersection of First and Main streets.
- When writing dialogue, banish redundancy in attribution. Avoid what’s apparent in a quote. “Thank you, mom, for that suggestion,” John said gratefully for his mother’s advice. (Yes, we’ve seen this.)
- Write in the active voice. What’s the difference between active voice and passive voice? The subject and verb act on the object, not the other way around. Active: The quarterback threw a touchdown pass. Passive: A touchdown pass was thrown by the quarterback. See how it works, and which reads better? Active voice allows you to use verb forms with much more impact in a much less wordy way.
- Choose exactly the right word. Precision negates the need for several other words. Take care to choose a word that clearly conveys the intended meaning. This frees the writer from explaining the wrong choice. A quote by Mark Twain on the homepage of our website neatly sums this up: “The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
- Avoid over-describing. Events and action need to be worthy of description. Don’t describe something as mundane as a hammer unless it’s at least the second-most important topic in the book.
Bottom line: Assign your words as economically as possible. A meagerly approach to your words likely will profit you and your readers.
Fran Allred and Mickey Johnson are the owners of We Edit Books, based in Huntington. They have a combined 69 years’ experience as newspaper and book editors in West Virginia and across the South and Midwest. They can be reached at weeditbooks.com and [email protected].