Tightening Your Prose

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With the ever shortening attention span of readers, tightening prose in order to get rid of unnecessary words becomes a necessity. Readers want their story delivered quickly and effectively, and rambling prose should be kept to a minimum, if not avoided altogether.

So how can you tighten your prose? Here are some tips I‘ve picked up:

  • Don’t Edit While Writing

Writing and editing are two different creatures. Writing is a creative process, and trying to edit while you write may stifle your creativity.

  • Read It Aloud

Hearing your written words spoken aloud can unveil grammatical errors or awkward phrasing, things you might not be able to pick out by reading alone.

  • Take Time Off Between Finishing Your Draft and Editing

I’ve heard authors say they’ll give themselves 2-6 weeks after finishing a manuscript before they go back to edit it. At first I thought this was insane. Why not edit as soon as you finish, while the story is fresh in your mind? But after taking this advice, I now realize why so many authors give it. Taking time off allows you to view your story more objectively. Going back into it with fresh eyes, you are much more likely to spot ineffective writing that needs to be altered or tightened up.

  • Keep it Simple

Don’t use a fancy, complicated word if an easier word will do just as well. No one will be impressed by your command of the English language. Your readers want to immerse themselves in a good story, and having to bust out the thesaurus every ten minutes is bound to detract from that.

  • Don’t Go Crazy with Description

Yes, you have to set the scene, but you don’t necessarily have to do it all at once. Use only as much description as is necessary for this part of the scene. You can sprinkle the rest in slowly, interspersing it with action and dialogue.

  • Choose Strong Words

Instead of modifying your verbs with adverbs (-ly and –ing words), choose stronger verbs. Instead of “walked angrily”, why not say “stomped”? Instead of “spoke loudly”, why not “shouted”? This is my personal weakness; I’m the adverb queen. I try not to worry about it during my first draft, but I know I’m going to want to edit a lot of these out of the manuscript before I can consider it complete.

Do you have any tips for tightening your prose?

For a good primer on editing, take a look at the “Fat-Free Writing or How to Eliminate Wordiness in 10 Easy Steps” Workshop given by Darlene Buchholz and Annie Oortman at RWA’s 2010 Conference (it’s available for download from RWA).

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13 thoughts on “Tightening Your Prose

    kay springsteen said:
    January 31, 2011 at 9:04 am

    In my last 60K ms, my editor suggested I do a search of the word “that” and I ended up with about 600. Eliminating the word that (not all of them but most) and also the accompanying words such as was, were, etc. will tighten prose.

    I have a related question – do you have any information on vocabulary building? Many times I would LOVE to write “stomped,” but all that comes into my mind is “walked angrily.”

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 31, 2011 at 9:23 am

      Same here Kay! My editor pointed out just how many unecessary “that” and “of” words I had in manuscript. It was quite a lesson on proper editing!

      Here’s what I do when I want to find a stronger verb. I’ll Google the search term “strong verbs list” which brings up a few different sites that give you strong verbs for ordinary words, i.e. look, walk, speak. I will also google the word plus the term strong verb, i.e. walk strong verb. That usually gives me quite a bit to choose from.

      If anyone else knows of a really good list of strong verbs, I’d love to hear of it!

        Zrinka said:
        January 31, 2011 at 9:37 am

        I have one on gerunds, it’s pretty good.

        http://www.writing-world.com/dawn/gerunds.shtml

        Rosalie Lario responded:
        January 31, 2011 at 9:48 am

        Thanks Zrinka. That’s got some really good information in there. I’m always thinking about those -ing words, particularly since I like to start sentences with them. 🙂

        E.D. Walker said:
        January 31, 2011 at 10:53 pm

        I have this problem too. So does my crit partner.

    Katalina Leon said:
    January 31, 2011 at 10:09 am

    As always Rosalie, this was great advice.
    Sometimes a looming deadline cuts the “aging” process short on a freshly completed ms. That’s actually happening to me this week. I just finished a book and ideally I would set it aside for a few weeks before editing, but not this time. Letting go of a story and coming back later with fresh eyes and a ruthless delete button is a great benefit.
    XXOO Kat

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 31, 2011 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks Katalina. That’s the problem with working on deadline. You can’t always set those manuscripts aside. 🙂

    Ciara Knight said:
    January 31, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Savvy Authors has a fantastic autocrit function. You cut and paste your MS in and it shows you how many times words are used. It will highlight passive words.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm

      Ooh, I did not know that! Thanks for the tip, Ciara. 🙂

    Julia Rachel Barrett said:
    January 31, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Great suggestions – coming here is like attending a free college class – but far less time-consuming!
    My favorite professor taught me – say what you have to say as simply and clearly as possible and write what you know. All the rest is gravy.

      Rosalie Lario responded:
      January 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm

      Thanks, Julia. I’m always trying to learn new stuff, and I’ve found that sharing and talking about it helps me retain it better. At least I hope so!

    Anita Clenney said:
    January 31, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Great tips. Thanks for posting!

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