Writing: Make Every Word Count

Writers often hear about successful authors who somehow make every word count. What does this mean for us?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some observations about how to make every word you write count:

Paint Instant Pictures

When you write, you must create mental imagery for readers. As I’ve said many times, you are your readers’ manager, guiding them to ignore this, remember that. To do this, it helps to keep your descriptions as simple and concrete as possible.

Give readers an instant and memorable mental picture by choosing the best descriptors for your purpose. Many fiction writers are tempted to include a head to toe description of their characters, when readers simply want a dominant image to remember. Choose unique details that point to the character’s personality or attitude.

Likewise, readers can envision a scene much more easily if you highlight rather than catalog. Instead of listing all the furnishings of a room, choose details that say something about the place. By showcasing instead of simply listing, readers can discern clues about your story and where it may be headed.

Know Your Point

Whether you write scenes or essays, you’ll want to keep your main point or purpose top-of-mind. Unless you’re very skilled, random facts or descriptors can confuse or stop readers. Resist the urge to “work in” cool things you learned in your research—readers want a story or essay to unfold logically. Randos dropping in or cool stuff with zero to do with the piece only muddies the water.

As you point your readers to your meaning, symbolism or purpose, boil those mental images to their most basic components. For instance, if your story features two sets of grandmothers, you may want to develop a composite grandmother to keep readers from becoming confused. Aim for a single image that readers will associate with the character or description.

Be sure you have a main point and stick to it. If you draft an essay and then discover a different, better point, pivot toward that better point. If you try to stuff a bunch of main take aways into your scene or essay, readers may not know what to follow and what to ignore. Streamline your main purpose to help readers follow along.

Learn to allow readers to imagine and make up their own minds about what you write. 

Less is More

Most writers have heard the phrase, “Less is more.” By providing too many details, descriptions, reasons why etc., you’re liable to lose readers. Instead of convincing readers by providing more information, revise a chock-full draft by paring away all the extraneous material.

At first, paring back may mean getting rid of adverbs or passive voice verbs. As you practice rewriting, be willing to consider every action, bit of dialogue or reaction. Ramp up tension by not allowing easy answers to questions, by forcing characters to battle for their goals, by addressing contrary views and by keeping the pace brisk.

To make every word you write count, rein in any tendency toward purple prose. Kill your darlings. Learn to allow readers to imagine and make up their own minds about what you write. Good managers learn how to balance control with freedom. Give readers a clear and simple roadmap to follow while at the same time allow them freedom to interpret what you write in any way they choose.

In your opinion, what are some examples of authors who successfully make every word count?


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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