Thursday, August 18, 2011

Writing Tip--Purge the Word Clutter

You know how at the beginning of the week I told you I was cleaning out my basement? I was sitting down there, going through box after box and I was thinking to myself, “Why did I save all this stuff?” (Okay, I was really thinking why did my husband save all this stuff. All the stuff *I* save is important and wonderful.)

But I got to thinking how sometimes that’s how it is with our writing. At one point, we think we need all those adjectives and “just” and “very” and “that,” but then, after we’ve walked away for a bit (see last week’s writing tip) we come back and go through things and realize we don’t need it and it's just cluttering up our work and keeping us from being our best. Now is the time to go back and purge all those things from our precious manuscript.

Sometimes purging can be difficult because we get into a mindset that we really NEED those words, or that's how I write and I can't change, or that's my favorite word, I don't want to delete it! All of those excuses are keeping your manuscript from being its best. You've got to be ruthless and cut, cut, cut. It might hurt a bit, but your writing will be stronger for it. (My favorite word is "just." I always have to do a search for it in my manuscript, and I'm always SHOCKED by how many I use.)

So today I’d like to give you a few hints for words that can be purged from your manuscript, giving it that fresh, clean feeling that every agent and publishing house is looking for.

Clutter Words to Find and Eliminate

It's not an all-inclusive list, but here's where I would start.

Clean out those clutter words! Delete words like: just, that, seem, only, very, finally, really, still, and suddenly. They're generally weak and not something you want in your manuscript.

Take out pretty much any adverb (words ending in “ly”). They’re just lazy writing words and you want your writing to have some punch! So, instead of saying, “I’d love to,” she said brightly. You could give it more punch with, The brilliant smile said it all. “I’d love to,” she said. Or something like that. You get the picture. You can show your story, be in the moment, and give your character depth when you don’t use adverbs.

Take out dialogue tags. If there’s only two people talking, you probably don’t need the “he said/she said,” tags. Be careful, though, you don’t want to take out so many of them, your readers get confused as to who is talking. Make sure you have your scene anchors in place.

And the last one to look out for, “there was.” If you say, “There was no way this was going to end well.” It’s passive sounding and lacks being in the moment. You could cut out the “there was,” with “This was not going to end well,” and even that gives it a little more punch.

Whew. It's quite a list, but don't feel overwhelmed. Take it a little at a time, and I promise you, as you get rid of the clutter, your writing will feel more crisp and you'll feel so much better.

So, start taking a look at your word clutter and purge, purge, purge. You can do it!


Melanie Goldmund said...

Oh, yes, I love doing this when I've written the first draft of a story for a contest where I can only use a certain amount of words. I always start by erasing the adverbs and the clutter words.

Actually, aside from contests, these are also good rules for writing in general, especially purging the word "seem." How often do I see this in poorly written fanfic and find myself groaning and frothing at the mouth. "Either it is, or it isn't! Don't use the word 'seem'!"

Not that I'm perfect myself, of course. I just like to seem so.


Debra Erfert said...

Someday I'll be able to use the search program on my computer and find all these little words and purge them forever.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Melanie, "seem" drives me nuts, too! I'm trying to be diligent about purging it from my writing as well.

Debra, it's really easy once you get the hang of it. :)

Anonymous said...

The word "seemed" and all of its cousins (appeared, felt like, looked like, could have been) are symptoms rather than the problem. You can root out all the symptoms, but variations of the "seemed" problem will still haunt your stories.

Tentative pros is the root cause. An uncertainty on the part of the author to be bold, succinct, accurate, detailed, and direct. Get rid of tenative writing and you will solve all your "seemed" problems. Not only that, but the voice of your writing will become stronger and your descriptions more detailed.

Weak, tentative writing is a voice killer. If mark with a red pen a page from your writing where you've used tentative, you begin to notice where using "almost-sort of-kinda-language" wrecks havoc on your story. And once you begin to notice tentative pros in your writing, you'll begin to find a more detailed, accurate, deliberate, bold, voice with which to tell your story. Even when your character is feeling timid, your writing should boldly explore her timidity in accurate, descriptive, unabashed language. Even tentative characters deserve to have their timidness decalred decisively.

Brittany said...

just is my favorite too. I fear how many I'm going to have to edit out of my WIP

Anonymous said...

Other reasons that authors use timid, indecisive, tentative pros include:

1. Hinting at a metaphor (almost apologetically): the cloth clung to her, as if it were always meant to act as her wedding gown.

Instead of taking the bold step of actually using the metaphor, straight-up, fearlessly: the cloth clung to her like a poorly-fitted wedding gown.

2. Timidly telling an emotion: she felt like she was going to die.

Instead of boldly using interior dialogue to convey the character's precise, accurate, intimate thoughts: Was she going to die?

3. Using common spoken Enlgish, like the expression "just" from the author's normal speaking habits, which conveys a sense of timidity: She could just barely see the edge of the swimming pool.

Instead of using more economical (and less tentative) pros: She could barely see the edge of the swimming pool.

4. Using general descriptions: She moved toward it as best she could.

Instead of specific descriptions: She tread water and let the surf carry her closer.

5. Using tenative pros to convey the passage of time: It seemed to take forever before she reached the the emergency phone.

Instead of writing a few lines of narrative summary to convey the passage of time before you write: Would the burn victim still be alive by the time she reached the emergency phone?

6. Usinging tentative pros to hide the fact that the author is TELLILNG AN EMOTION: She climbed the steps, feeling almost overwhelming relief when she reached the emergency phone.

Instead of creating a scene that evokes the emotion in the reader without ever having to state the emotion: Shelly tossed away her dead cell phone, whispered to the shooting victim to stay calm then left her bleeding on the pavement. Where was that little blue emergency phone the English placed on every village street corner? She turned onto fifth street. Nothing. Ran along the avenue. There it was, under a lamp across the street.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...


Actually, I disagree with you on several of your points. I realize that you are using slightly twisted examples from the first chapter of Ribbon of Darkness, but the one I wanted to address was "the material clung to her as if it were always meant to act as her funeral shroud." I don't think that is weak writing at all. It evokes a lot of visualization since the scene is her struggling for her life and a black burka swirling around and over her as she died would be a funeral shroud in a way. There are instances where "as if" wouldn't work and might seem weak, but I disagree that this is one of them.

As I said above, I disagree on several of your points, and had a long response planned about economy of words and what tentative prose really looks like, but I think I will let it go and just say, I might put more stock in your words if you weren't anonymous. Having the courage to sign your name to your opinion makes a big difference to me in how much I value said opinion. I put my work and writing tips out there with my name on it and while they are not always perfect, I like to think they are helpful. I think you have some valid ideas as well, but would prefer to know who I am speaking to before I engage in a discussion like this one.

Thank you for your input, though. I do value everyone's comments on my blog.

Kian Flux said...

This 'purging the word clutter' is indeed a very helpful. I never thought that having too many annoying words in a piece of writing makes it boring.

I for one tend to do this very often. Now I come to think of it, I guess I'll have to eliminate entire chapters-ouch! that hurts. some of my chapters are the most important and expressive ones. Anyway I'll have try to purge as much as I could.

Great writing tip, by the way. Thanks a million Julie.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Thanks, Kian. I appreciate your kind words. :)