What is the first thing an agent, editor, or reader sees when they start your story? Your sentences. Cluttered prose makes for laborious reading. It’s a distraction from the plot—one that will make people put your book down.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Never use two words when one will do.” You don’t want your sentences to be overly simplistic, but you do want them to be crisp. So, what specifically can writers do to cut down words? Get out the scissors and let’s cut!
(1) Adverbs and Weak Verbs
You’ve heard about adverbs’ reputation. Why the bad rep? Because you can often replace an adverb and a weaker verb with one strong verb.
walked angrily = stomped
said loudly = shouted
While you’re at it, make sure you’re using strong, specific verbs. She glided across the stage gives a better visual of her movement than She walked across the stage.
(2) Was + Gerund
If you are writing in past tense, avoid using “was” and the ‘ing’ form of a verb such as She was smiling. Just use the past tense verb. She smiled. Instead of He was singing to himself, cut it to He sang to himself.
(3) Verb + in feeling
One thing to keep in mind is the reader infers quite a bit. You don’t always need to spell it out. So in the case of sentences like He yelled in exasperation or She sighed in relief, either the verb tells the feeling or the context of the story does. You don’t need to directly state the feeling so just use the verb.
(4) Trimming Dialogue
Dialogue is a place where you want your writing to be on point. It needs to sound like the character is speaking while moving the plot forward. Pretend you have to pay a nickel for every word of dialogue. Make those words count! A few quick trims you can make:
(5) Sense Words
No, not sensory words. Sense words. What are those? Look, feel, saw, heard, noticed…a word telling what sense the character is using. Skip those words and write what is being sensed. For example,
She saw a strange man peek into the garage window. = A strange man peeked into the garage window.
He smelled the sweet tendrils of cinnamon that curled through the air. = Sweet tendrils of cinnamon curled through the air.
Removing sense words not only makes your sentence cleaner, it also eliminates the narrative distance these words put between the reader and the story experience.
(6) Began to/Beginning to
This is a popular phrase to use while writing. Whenever you catch yourself using it, look closely at the sentence to see if it is really necessary. Oftentimes you don’t need it and you want to be especially sure you don’t get into a pattern of using this phrase repeatedly.
(7) Action “As”
Writers occasionally use the word “as” to tie together two forms of action happening within the same sentence. This is another tricky one that requires a good look since the “as” can usually be cut and the longer sentence made into two smaller ones. For example,
As he crossed the room, Marie stood and twisted the handkerchief in her hands. = He crossed the room. Marie stood and twisted the handkerchief in her hands.
He lifted the bowstring to his cheek as the bear emerged from his den. = He lifted the bowstring to his cheek. The bear emerged from his den.
Keep in mind these are tips for getting your writing crisp, not a list of “No NEVER Write This!” Writing concise sentences isn’t easy and takes practice. A good exercise is writing flash fiction, 500 words or less. Be sure to keep those scissors out and make Jefferson proud.
**BONUS - I want you to know that there is another word that can clutter up a sentence that you are writing. Can you figure out what that word is?
This blog post originally appeared on the Florida Writers Association blog on July 2, 2018.