Friday, February 3, 2012

How To Write Better

Okay, so I've been edited extensively before. My agent is highly editorial, number one, and nothing goes past her eagle eye to my publishing house without me bleeding all over it.

Literally. I will admit that I cried once. Then I opened the cracking document and fixed whatever she wanted me to fix.

Anyway, so this time around, I sent her a book. I hadn't had one other person read it. Not one. I didn't have time for beta reads or anything. So basically it had my sucktacular attempts to get it right and I sent it to my agent.

She emails to say she thinks I need to do another pass before we submit (no surprise there--did I mention NO ONE else had read it?), and she'll have notes for me soon. I want to eat half my body weight in sour patch kids, because until that doc lands in my email, I'm a nervous wreck. Will I cry again? Did I ruin the story? How bad does this book that NO ONE else read stink?

And soon? What the heck? Soon can't be soon enough. (I've also learned that "soon" could mean "later today" or "next week.")

So I work on other stuff and try to maintain my diet so that when the email comes, I'm ready.

So it comes. I purposefully don't open it until I've eaten and have my pajamas on. (Because everything is better in pj's, right?)

So I open the document...

And surely she's jesting. This is nothing! Some line edits. LINE EDITS. Maybe 3 comments, and the things she's suggesting in said comments are easy to fix.

That's it!

It can't be true. I finish the line edits in a single night. I go to bed thinking that I'll get the real email with the real document in the morning.

It doesn't come.

Can it be? Maybe I don't suck as much as I thought. Or hey, maybe I've learned how to write better.

Maybe. Both of those are doubtful, but I did want to share one tip today that I learned from doing these line edits.

You can convey something in a more powerful manner with less words. Some examples from the book I turned in.

What I had: "It seemed to fit well enough, and when she gave it a gentle squeeze, I couldn’t even remember my own name."
Edited to: "It fit just right, and when she gave it a gentle squeeze, I couldn’t even remember my own name."

What I had: "The emotions coming from him couldn’t settle into one specific thing. Love, anger, desperation, more anger, confusion."
Edited to: "His emotions couldn’t settle into any one thing."

What I had: "And she obviously hadn’t slept much over the last few weeks."
Edited to: "And she obviously hadn’t been sleeping much." (I know this seems little, but the "over the last few weeks" is totally unnecessary. It's the little things that make your writing better, you know?)

Things I use a lot that aren't necessary:

  • Then
  • for a moment
  • many times before
  • or something (hey, I'm a conversational writer, what can I say?)
  • I didn't answer. (No duh. If there's no dialog, he didn't speak. I do this ALL THE TIME in some form. "without another word" "I waited, silent." Or something. Ha! But dude, it doesn't need to be expressly said that the MC isn't talking, because if they were there'd be dialog!)
  • totally (don't judge me)

Some words are unnecessary. Good writers use only the words they need, and nothing more. I highly suggest you razor those words out of your MS on one of your revision passes.

What do you think? What are some of your unnecessary catch phrases? Can you use less words and achieve more power?

63 comments:

Alyssia said...

Loved this article, especially since I'm looking at a Post-It directly next to my laptop which lists the words I need to look out for when editing. Stuff like "just, that, perhaps, maybe, etc."

By the by, this--I want to eat half my body weight in sour patch kids--totally made me snort coffee this morning. LOL. Good luck with the book! :)

Miranda Hardy said...

I've noticed Well and So sneak in from time to time. Ugh. Glad that the edits didn't make you cry this time. Lol

Anita Saxena said...

I've always been a firm believer in less is more and, yes, everything is better in pjs. Great post!

Journaling Woman said...

I think I'm a girl who loves fewer words and that's why I like to write short stories (also accomodates my ADD) but I need to use the "right" words.

You're FUNNY! I enjoyed your pain. Kidding. But I enjoyed your post.

Teresa

Rain Laaman said...

I guessed the ending to your story! I mean the one about waiting in you PJs for the edits.

I stink at writing concisely. I'll probably have to edit a lot every time because it's just easier to write a lot of words, you know what I mean? See how I keep writing a lot of entirely unnecessary words and taking up all the space in your Splashes of Life section?

Leigh Ann said...

First of all? I'm just gonna give you a big fat ROUND OF APPLAUSE for a first, unseen-by-anyone draft coming back with THREE COMMENTS and LINE EDITS!!!! I mean come on. That is unheard of. You so clearly rule.

I'm very lucky to have one CP in particular with an eagle eye for this kind of stuff. The number of times I had written "just" in my latest MS was over 300 (three hundred!) The frequency of "a little" wasn't much less embarrassing. A lot of the things you described are signs that I was writing insecure. Just one more reason for the unagented especially to have kick-butt CPs.

Leigh Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's all about making the prose tighter and cleaner. And I definitely think we improve the more we write.

Andrea Mack said...

Great tips, Elana! I always go through my manscript to look for these at least once (if not two or three times, because there's no way I got them all the first time).

Laura Pauling said...

What an awesome treat for you! That's wonderful. I def. think less is more powerful! Yay!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

"Some" or "something" or "sometimes" - I swear those words are the bane of my existence! But it makes it easy to search and destroy later.

Congrats on the one-night edit! That speaks volumes. :)

Kelly Hashway said...

I got my editorial letter for TOUCH OF DEATH this week and I didn't cry! All the changes make sense and like you've discovered from your agent's comments, I'm discovering how to be a better writer. Saying more with less is something my editor is having me do, too, and I'm loving it. Sure, I have to harder content stuff I have to work through, but it's all manageable. Overall, I'm just loving how this manuscript is really shining now. :)

Christine Fonseca said...

Absolutely! I actually believe less is almost always more. Thus the brevity of my writing most of the time ;)

Julie Daines said...

This is a perfect reminder as I begin the last round of edits before submitting to my editor. Thanks!

melissa said...

I'm definitely an overwriter. I've been trying to curb the habit with some practice in my blog posts. I think I'm getting better, but I still have a ways to go.

Thanks for the advice!

Melissa Sarno said...

My fiance used to be a reporter and he gave me the best tip ever: Take one word out of every sentence you write. I think it's really helpful. Good luck with your book, Elana :)

Catherine Stine said...

So true! I'm always telling my writing students "Less is more!". Of course, then I have to go over my own manuscripts and apply the same rule.

Heather Kelly said...

Oh, THEN is definitely one of my downfalls. Although I have MANY downfalls. Thank goodness I can revise. :)

Congrats on the awesome editorial letter! I feel so happy that you didn't have to do a ton of tough fixes. Does that mean there is a possibility that this process gets easier as we get more knowledgeable??

One can only hope!

storyqueen said...

I think that once you "know" how your agent edits, you subconsciously keep that in mind when you write.

And I think that sometimes, betas might move us farther away from the story than we want to be. Letting an agent see it early can be a good thing.

Ruth Josse said...

Oh, I love this! Gives me hope. :) Often I will get back a crit with comments like, " awkward sentence" and it's because there are too many words in it. Or they will suggest a simplified version and I'll slap myself in the forehead and say, "Duh!"

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'm in love with the word sometimes. It's time we break up.
~ Wendy

Patti said...

I've been trying to work on that: saying things with less words. My character nod way too much.

Matthew MacNish said...

Oh wow. This is EXACTLY what I'm doing right now. Would you believe I managed to cut 20,000 words without cutting a single entire scene? Yep, I'm such an overwriter, I cut that many words just by fixing sentences. I'm hoping the next book will only have 10,000 extra words.

Katie Anderson said...

Clearly you have just evolved into a beautiful butterfly of a writer! As I was reading the beginning I was thinking, Oh please don't say, "And now we have to wait to see what the agent said." So thanks for the WHOLE story. And congrats! Here's to another big sale!

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I'm thrilled to hear the process becomes easier...faster as we progress. Thanks so much for sharing.

TL Conway said...

Wow--what a great feeling to only have a few line edit changes! Congrats!

I have a whole slew of problem words including but not limited to:
so, sometimes, just (this one is a HUGE problem), and that.

There are others, but you get the idea...

And yes--everything is better in pjs. I agree!

K.T. Hanna said...

It sounds like that email was a breath of fresh air for you. You've grown :D

I think everyone has things they do. My favourite in a first draft was:
Well, if everything goes relatively death free.
Changed to:
Well, if everything goes smoothly.

I'll never forget that one.

I think as we write more, we get better and it gets easier to see our bad habits and remove them after the fact.

Congrats on such a clean draft :D

Stephanie McGee said...

I think part of this too is that you know how your editor reads and edits at this point. So when you're writing you have that voice in the back of your mind that tells you whether your editor will grab you on this or that phrase or scene. Not that you're writing specifically for that editor or agent, but just that you trust their voice and opinion and it guides you while you're unaware.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I love this post, Elana! It's timely for me, since this is exactly what I've been doing for the past two days. I use THEN, AND THEN, NAMES WITHIN DIALOGUE,DUDE, and about a bajillion other things way too often. :-)

Linda Jackson said...

Ditto what Stephanie McGee said...you have learned to write better as well as have learned your agent/editor.

When I wrote for educational publishers, I wrote for the same editor. And I eventually learned her style. So, yes, the passages started coming back with fewer edits, and sometimes, miraculously, no edits at all.
I also stopped asking others to read for me before I sent a passage to my editor because I knew her well enough to know what would work and what wouldn't. And my beta readers didn't know these things.
Again, congrats, on "getting there". You are an inspiration!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I'm trying to eliminate those passive verbs more for active ones. I have a whole 2 page list of words to avoid from Janice Hardy's blog that I always check for and that cut down my word count a lot.

Angela Brown said...

Even though it is said repeatedly, it is so true that less is more. I wish you the best of luck with this book.

One of the things I use that I don't need to is "at all" Like, "She didn't like anything about him at all."

Why? I don't know why I use it, no clue at all<<<<see, did it again. lol!!

Ghenet Myrthil said...

First off all, congrats on writing a manuscript that required minimal editing! That's really cool. Thanks for sharing these tips and examples. I'm also guilty of noting when a character doesn't say something (of course it's obvious!) and using words like "just" and "then" way too often. I'm going to go through my manuscript and change that.

Riv Re said...

Ooh. Good advice. Definitely need to chop down some stuff...(And this is a few hours after lecturing my friend on her excessive wordiness when she writes.)
One thing incredibly subtle that makes a huge difference: word choice. For little things. I got this epiphany when I tried to write a scene from a side-character's PoV, who's a king. When he sees a blood stain on a white shirt, he doesn't say "dirtying the shirt." He thinks "coloring" or "staining."
It's about writing to fit the character. Would my reader notice if I wrote "dirtying?" Probably not. But this improves the reading experience.
It's a pain, though, to go looking for the little things.

I'm definitely going to go get rid of all the "for a moment"s and "then"s.

GunDiva said...

Congrats on only three line edits! You're a rock star.

And because you are, I need some help. Maybe I'm not the only one struggling with where to even start with revising/editing. I finished my novel (finally!) and am in love with it, but it's not perfect. However, every time I open the document to start revising, I freeze. The task just seems insurmountable. How do you go about your revisions? Do you have a process or do you just take a deep breath and jump in?

Krispy said...

I'm sure it's a sign of your improvement! :)

My crutch words are "totally, just, somewhat, rather."

Jennifer said...

Great advice. Thanks for sharing this process it is very helpful when you are working on something to know that you are not alone in the self doubt or the ability to make mistakes.

Myrna Foster said...

"That" is my worst offender, but I've noticed new offenders creep in when I'm not paying attention.

Congratulations on the improvement! It's encouraging.

Marsha Sigman said...

AWESOME post.

I love that we are 'totally' doing the same things.lol

I'm pretty brief with the words but what is it about the whole silence thing? He didn't reply. She kept silent. I didn't answer. I didn't ask.

I could go but obviously I will stop this immediately.

Congrats to you!!!! And I have no doubt new book is just that awesome.

Kristin Rae said...

Oh I'd be a nervous wreck waiting for those emails! EEK! I definitely catch myself using words I shouldn't. Stand up, is one... if you stand you're already up. Also looking down at feet... feet are already down (unless they're up on a dash or something).

Thanks for sharing these. It's always good to look out for them! :)

Laura said...

Great post - and congrats on such a fab lack of editing to do - you must be in total shock :)

I posted a bit of a flowery short short story at my place tonight. I now want to go and hack it back, polish it up until it shines as a 10 word zen masterpiece (!)... PJs first though
Laura x

Cortney Pearson said...

Congrats on your lack-of-editing! So exciting, what a great feeling! I definitely have useless words hiding along my WIPs. My main overused ones are just, even, and seem to. This is so true, though, compactness really makes a huge difference. Great post!

lisasanuma said...

That sounds like a dream of a response! Glad your agent liked it so much!

Liza said...

Great post and good for you!

Nicole Zoltack said...

I delete he felt/saw/heard stuff like that. I've been better about not writing them into drafts lately so that helps cut down editing a little.

Melody said...

Um, I think congratulations are in order! :) If I got a short list of line edits instead of the MAJOR EDITS I was expecting, I would be dancing around the house. So...I'm going to dance around my house in celebration of your lack of major edits! :)

tahlianewland.com said...

I found the same thing. When I ran my sequel past my extremely critical beta readers, they had nothing much to report. My writing had improved enormously during the process of writing the first book.

Your examples of fine editing are really good, it's the kind of thing I discovered in the last draft of my first novel - still with my agent searching for a publisher - and it's something I find in a lot of Indie works; they just have too many unecessary words.

Tahlia Newland, urban fantasy author of ‘A Matter of Perception’ - quirky & surprising tales http://tahlianewland.com/short-stories/

Randy said...

I guess you have really developed as an author. Compacting the writing is what I need to work on. One of the ladies in my writer's group is great at that.

Congrats overall on a pretty clean manuscript.

Theresa Milstein said...

Wow, Elana, you must've hit that stride. So impressive. Maybe writing slower + having several manuscripts behind you has you in a different place.

Christina Farley said...

Yay! It's always great when your stuff is good. What a great feeling! Those are great suggestions on words to keep an eye on. Good luck!

Leigh Covington said...

Oh man, this is awesome! So glad you shared. I've been mulling over the same type of thing lately (meaning words I use too much and shouldn't - and how to simplify certain sentences.) That is so cool that the edit was that quick! Here's to improvement - right! Good on ya!

Misha Gericke said...

Hahaha same as yours. It's uncanny. :-D Glad to know that you learnt to do without those unnecessary words.

Jo Schaffer said...

You are increasing in awesomeness.

I noticed after having an editor go through my manuscript with me that it actually made me a better writer overall... I catch the common mistakes I used to make. So my first drafts these days are so much better than a first draft I would have written even a year ago.

Jemi Fraser said...

My first drafts are littered with redundant words and phrases. I also tend to overuse a few: just, looked, felt like, seemed,... annoying, really!

Deana said...

I am ALWAYS trying to tell when my characters are silent! This post is sooo awesome. I can't wait to hit my find and select button for your suggestions. Thanks!

Nicole Ducleroir said...

I'm reading Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus," and it is a great example of how much more powerful lines are with fewer words. Erin's style is streamlined, and the words she does use are descriptive and hum with energy and tone. I feel like every paragraph is a lesson for me in how to write better.

Congrats on the successful draft!!! YOU ROCK. Start believing in yourself or, for real, I'll track you down and shake you by the shoulders. You've been warned. haha

Happy weekend!

June G said...

I'm learning this lesson, too. I use way more words than necessary. Thanks, again for a simple but profound lesson, Elana!

Bish Denham said...

Congratulations Elana! My nails would be bit down the the quick and bleeding.

Sari Webb said...

First, that's brilliant that you only had to make a few edits. I can imagine the relief!

Second, absolutely agree about cutting back on extraneous words. I think I'm quite a wordy writer so it's something I always have to look out for.

skybluepinkish said...

Wow, that's impressive! I write and write and write and then have to edit and edit and edit. My first novel went from over 80,000 to 60,000 and I didn't cut the plot !

Leslie Rose said...

Those words don't feel superfluous when they first pop out, but later they are head whack worthy. Now you can have Sour Patch Kids to celebrate.

Nichole Giles said...

Oh my gosh, I recently did a pass like this on my WIP. I searched for a handful of phrases and ended up cutting 400 words. Yikes! And awesome. Great advice.

Also, congrats on your MINOR edits! That's fabulous news.

Susanne Drazic said...

Only a few line edits? That is wonderful. CONGRATS!

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