Keep your readers reading: Say it succinctly
As writers, we like words, don’t we? We like the way they sound. We like stringing them together in long, elaborate sentences. We work hard to make our words say what we mean.
Sometimes, we work too hard. Sometimes, we just need to say what we mean and get out of our own way–and out of the way of the words themselves.
Today’s lesson has to do with cutting the fat and streamlining your writing in a way that enables the reader’s eyes to keep moving. You don’t want your readers to get bogged down in mucky, wordy sentences. Let’s give them some solid ground.
Consider the following fat sentences and the revisions I recommend:
ORIGINAL: I came up with the idea the second I noticed Megan hesitating. REVISION: I came up with the idea when Megan hesitated. OR The second that Megan hesitated, I came up with the idea. [Editor’s note: if you leave “that” out of the second option, it reads a little bit like there are two Megans.]
ORIGINAL: When I walked in the room, I noticed Sam looking at me. REVISION: When I walked in the room, Sam looked at me.
ORIGINAL: At the very top of the mountain, I noticed a blinking white light. REVISION: At the very top of the mountain is a blinking white light. OR I saw a blinking white light at the top of the mountain.
What’s the common denominator in these examples? Exactly. “I noticed.” This phrase (and variations of it) pops up often in early drafts, but active writing can do its job much better. Instead of saying that a character notices something, just tell the reader what it is the character notices, as I did in the revisions.
Consider these now, along with my revisions:
ORIGINAL: So I decide to explain my side of the story. REVISION: So I explain my side of the story.
ORIGINAL: I decide to stop at the first bank I find. REVISION: I stop at the first bank I find.
Similar to “I notice/d” is “I decide/d.” If someone sees you do something or hears you say something, they will likely assume (without conscious thought, probably) that you decided to do or say that particular thing. It’s superfluous to say “I decide/d” when the action reveals your decision. Cut that fat!
ORIGINAL: I can feel my heartrate accelerate. REVISION: My heartrate accelerates.
There’s no need to say “I feel” when it’s just as clear–and doesn’t change the meaning–to remove that phrase. Now, it would add to the description to write something like, “My palms begin to sweat. My mouth goes dry.” Those types of details add to the feeling the writer is trying to create without saying, for example, “I feel my palms begin to sweat” or “I feel my mouth go dry.”
Finally, we have excessive dialogue tags.
ORIGINAL: “Okay, but remember I’m running late!” I remind her. REVISION: “Okay, but remember I’m running late!”
If the speaker has already said “remember” in their dialogue, there’s no need to add a dialogue tag that says, “I remind her.”
ORIGINAL: “Are you kidding?” William said with a dumbfounded tone to his voice. REVISION: “Are you kidding?” William said, dumbfounded. [Editor’s note: In this example, “dumbfounded” isn’t needed, even in the revised version. Asking the question, “Are you kidding?” implies that he’s dumbfounded.]
See how many words I was able to cut from the original without changing the meaning? My revision is cleaner and easier to read.
ORIGINAL: “Of course not!” I scoff. REVISION: “Of course not!”
It’s clear in the spoken words (“Of course not!”) that the speaker is scoffing. There’s no need to add a dialogue tag that says so.
I hope these examples have given you some ideas as to how you can clean up your own writing. You could even search your document for some of the problematic phrases I discussed above. If you find these fatty phrases in your writing, see if you can’t rewrite the sentence in a way that makes your writing cleaner.
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