We’ve all heard the advice: You need to tighten up your
writing. But what does that really mean?
Writing Tip for Today: Tight writing doesn’t always mean
terse or brief prose. Here are some easy ways to avoid overwriting and learn to
The Risky Rs
Repetition can help readers understand that something in a
story is important. In the movie, “Titanic,” Rose’s blue Heart of the Ocean
necklace helped readers transition from the present to the past and back again.
But repetition quickly becomes redundant when it’s not needed.
Redundancy can take several forms: Repeated Actions. The
man put his hat on his head. On his head isn’t needed—where else do we
usually put a hat? Character tags such as biting one’s lip or running hands
through one’s hair can help readers envision a fictional person—but repeated
too often, these types of actions irritate or frustrate readers. Repeated
Words. Look through a page or two of your draft. Circle words or phrases such
as just, very, he reached, she turned.
Also redundant—adding unnecessary words to modify
actions or dialogue. “I hate you!” She shouted in anger. He stomped loudly
through the room. They collaborated together. The dialogue itself shows anger; a stomp is
loud and collaboration requires togetherness. Writers often add these
redundancies for fear readers won’t experience the scene as the author
intended. Yet this type of overwriting doesn’t allow readers to envision their
own version and often stops them reading. Look for ly words or
prepositional phrases to spot and trim these pesky places.
Attempting to sound literary, writers often turn to their thesaurus
to avoid using or repeating ordinary words. In centuries past, language and
usage were much more formal. But today, flowery descriptions won’t only sound
antiquated—they’ll interfere with comprehension and reader engagement. Here’s
Draft: I dare not suppose that I saw the tempest
approaching from the bilious eastward sky. Across the verdant fields the
tempest marched closer like an iron dragon. I, the pawn of mischievous storms,
could only find shelter in that most inward alcove of my humble abode and seek
my Maker’s favor.
Rewrite: If I’d known the tornado was coming the
morning the sky turned yellow, I wouldn’t have stood watching the twister cross
over the back forty like a freight train. I mean, I’m a storm chaser, but all I
could do was hunker down in the bathtub and pray like thunder.
Of course, if you’re writing a Middle Ages fantasy, you
might get away with a bit of fancy language. But if your story is set most
anywhere else, don’t confuse readers. Keep your tone consistent and as clear
and plain as possible.
Advice on overwriting and writing tighter isn’t complete
without mentioning punctuation. In this age of textspeak and emojis, we convey
feelings with excessive use of question marks and exclamation points. Yet good
tight writing isn’t the same as shooting a quick message to your BFF over
Tight writing means that you can use all the exclamation points you wish on your draft. But with revision, cull those critters out of the herd. Some writing pros insist you only get one exclamation point in your whole writing life. I’m not that strict but I do believe that overusing these marks paints writers as amateurs. And a gaggle of !!! and ??? creates visual clutter for readers.
When it comes to tightening your work, always start by asking yourself if a word, phrase or punctuation mark is needed. Does it enhance the prose, or does it clutter your work with distractions and force readers to see the scene in only one way (yours)?
Delete the part in question and see if you (and ideally, another reader) miss it or interpret the passage differently? Commit to writing naturally yet clearly in your own voice. And when it comes to that single exclamation point at your disposal, use it wisely.