Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Say it Tight

It's Wordy Wednesday...

...but today I'll talk about more words you want to get rid of before submitting (a follow up to my post 2 weeks ago, which you can view here). Today's focus: unnecessary words.

Here's the checklist, followed by examples:

In a way

Enter these words (and their variations) in your "find" box for your word processor. If you don't find each one dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of times, then congratulations, you have a tight manuscript. If not, here's some examples to get your started:

1) It's all like just somehow really very wordy

Now, you probably don't have sentences that wordy, but they might look something like this:

Somehow, he knew this would happen.
He knew this would happen

It all made sense. If only he could just make sense of that last clue...
It all made sense. Now, if he could decipher the last clue...

She really hated him, and it spread to all her friends like it was some kind of pandemic.
Her hatred for him was pandemic. After a week of gossip, everyone in the office wanted him out.

(Notice that cutting unnecessary words doesn't always make your sentence shorter.)

2) It seems quite hard to read, or rather, its actually somewhat tedious

Now that's a tedious sentence. Yours might look a little more like these:

She seemed to notice him.
She noticed him.

It was rather hard not to think of him that way.
She couldn't think of him that way.

The dog looked somewhat angry.
The dog growled.

3) In a way, this thing is still a little long

Ugh! Here are some examples:

In a way, her answer reflected wisdom beyond her years.
Her answer showed wisdom beyond her years.

The box was lined with black things, long little tubes that poked up in all directions.
Finger-length, black tubes lined the box, poking up like porcupine quills.

It was taking them a long time to get where they needed to go. Bryan looked at his watch.
Bryan checked his watch. 5:00. "We should have been finished by 4:30!"

4) It's not just about cutting words

Notice these examples are not mindless word-cutting exercises. Sometimes there is a place to use "just" and "that". Your goal isn't just to cut words, but to replace them with ones that show the reader your story.

Now take the challenge further. Read your manuscript and look for words you use a lot. Put them in your "find" box and see how you've used them. Can you cut them out and make your writing sharper?

Graeme Brown
Junior editor
Twitter: @GraemeBrownWpg

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ear Worms

It's Wordy Wednesday...

...time for some reflections from the editor's desk.

Pardon me if I seem to be in a “pet peeves” mode today. You know how sometimes you notice one little detail, and suddenly you see it everywhere? Well, lately I’ve noticed an overuse of two clichés, the literary equivalent of ear-worms, so I’m on a de-worming campaign.

A cliché starts as an original expression, but devolves through misuse and overuse into meaningless verbiage. One I can’t get out of my head is “turn on one’s heel.” The original use appears to have been an attempt to show how a character can spin around, usually in anger or disgust. My problem with the phrase is not only overuse, although that’s bad enough. What gets to me is that the action described is nearly impossible to do. The angles of our knees and ankles and the balance of our muscles are all wrong for this motion. Seriously, have you ever tried turning on your heel? I dare you to do it without landing on your derriere. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait… See? If you want to change direction quickly and emphatically, you pivot on your toes. The only person I’ve ever seen turn on his heel was an actor, playing an alien disguised as a human. The effect was truly eerie and, well, alien.

The other worm in my ear could be considered less obnoxious because it takes many forms:

I forced my way through the crowd.

He picked his way over the stones.

She edited her way through a manuscript.

They ate their way through the meal.

We swam our way across the river.

All these sentences indicate movement against resistance, which isn’t so bad. But he pushed his way through the open door? Yes, I’ve run into that one. Where’s the resistance he’s pushing against? My objection to this cliché is its frequency and its lack of detail. How about:

 I wriggled between the dancers.

He tested each stone before he trusted his weight to it.

She wielded her red pen like a machete over a jungle of turgid prose.

They gorged on a smorgasbord.

The river nearly carried us off, but we floundered to the other bank.

He took one bold step into the room.

Yes, these sentences are longer, but much more vivid.

Clichés serve a purpose. They are a kind of shorthand we use without thinking, in the faith that our readers will know what we mean. Indeed, if you never use a cliché your writing may feel foreign or unnatural. However, we can do better. We can use stronger verbs, more precise nouns and more descriptive adjectives to create a sharper picture in our readers’ minds. Examine your use of clichés. If they are not the best way to get your ideas across, turn on your heel and work your way through to better writing. 

Better yet, ditch the cliché and get creative.

Nikki Andrews is an editor at CBG and a published author. She also does freelance editing. Visit her blog at

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Word Weeding

It's Wordy Wednesday...

...but today I'll talk about the opposite of being wordy. In particular: words to weed out before you submit your manuscript.

Start, begin, turn, look, could, and feel are the biggest culprits. As an editor reading submissions, the first thing I do is search for how these words are used. If the counter comes up in the hundreds for more than one, I return the manuscript, even if the story is good.

Here's a basic check-list to help you clear your manuscript of these pests:

1) Do your characters start do to things? Do they began to walk? Begin to speak?

Use the "find" feature in your word processor and go through your manuscript, looking for all forms of "start" and "begin" ("began", "begun").

(Note: Don't use "find & replace", because you will have to think about how to tighten most sentences where the rogue words occur.)

Here are some examples to help you:

Joe started to walk down the street.
Joe walked down the street.

Jane began to ponder her predicament.
Jane pondered her predicament.

2) Are people turning and looking and seeing? Do you have them turning to the door? Are they looking at each other when they talk? Does Bob see the path ahead of him?

Again, use the "find" feature for all three words - "turn", "look", "see" (and "saw"). Here's more examples:

He turned to the door, seeing it was partly ajar.
The door was ajar.

Hansel turned to Rachel and looked at her shimmering red dress.
Rachel's red dress shimmered.

She saw the path before her, then turned to look at Chris as she spoke. "Are you going to get over it? I told you I'm sorry."
"I need time. Weren't you listening?" Chris said.
The path stretched ahead. Chris kept pace with her, brooding. "Are you going to get over it? I told you I'm sorry."
"I need time. Weren't you listening?"

Notice in the last example how cutting those words makes the story do its own telling? Good storytelling hides a lot between the lines, so you can say more with less.

3) Check if you have a case of the "coulds". Do you find that Chuck could feel his panic rising? Or that Haley could smell the fresh rain?

Go through your manuscript, searching "could" and "feel" (don't forget "felt" and could's cousins, "should", and "might").

Alex could hear the alarm from across the room.
The alarm blared.

He might have felt fear, but he steeled himself anyway.
He steeled himself, ignoring fear.

He felt the snake slither across his leg.
The snake slithered across his leg.

Sanford could have sworn he was supposed to be at the office by eight, but he must have been wrong.
Sanford arrived at the office by eight. It was empty. He checked his calendar.

4) If you've ticked off this checklist, then you're on track. But the list goes on: said, asked, just, very, and realize, to name a few.

There are many great books on writing craft. I would personally recommend Strunk and White's, The Elements of Style and Rayne Hall's, The Word Loss Diet, as short, easy-to-follow drills that will help you make your submission shine.

Graeme Brown
Junior editor
Twitter: @GraemeBrownWpg