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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Writing Tight (making every sentence count)

To me, writing tight means writing with clarity.

1. Simplify your sentences. Instead of writing: Jane hopped in her little yellow car, revved the engine and made the wheels sputter in the gravel before she took off toward the big city, toward the unknown. Write: Jane hopped in her car and headed for a new life in San Francisco.

2. Get rid of clutter. See Kim Blank’s article on Wordiness at http://web.uvic.ca/~gkblank/wordiness.html

3. If a word is unnecessary to the meaning of a sentence, toss it.

4. Use the active voice. The dog bit the boy. Not: The boy was bit by the dog.

5. Adjectives and Adverbs. Don’t say “Jane mumbled unclearly” when “Jane mumbled” does the job.

6. Read your story aloud or have someone else read it to you.

7. Be specific. Don’t make readers work too hard to understand your character’s actions and motives. Don’t write: Jane’s childhood was horrible and involved many physical altercations. Write: As a child, Jane was beaten, raped, and locked in the closet every night.

8. Show readers what happened instead of what didn’t happen. Strunk and White recommend, “He ignored her.” instead of “He was not paying attention to her.”

9. Don’t worry about writing tight during the first draft. Writing tight takes practice and should be done in the revision process. Writing tight doesn’t mean always writing shorter sentences. Clarity always comes first.

In a recent blog, when talking about cutting pages, Jill Monroe gave some good advice: Delete all words that are filters, such as could, just, and seem. Take out the passive was “ing.”

If you’re afraid writing tight will change your voice, try it and see. Take one page of your manuscript and follow these tips. You might not like cutting your beloved words at first, but when you’re done you’ll see that you’re writing is cleaner, tighter, better.

To add clarity to your writing you also need to watch for grammatical errors. See Colleen Gleason’s WNP article, Fixing the Top Ten Grammatical Mistakes of Writers, at http://www.wetnoodleposse.com/archives/Sept_2006/writerslife.html

Feel free to add your own “writing tight” suggestions to the list.

All questions and comments are welcome!

Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. I don’t always practice what I preach, especially when I write fast and then don’t take the time to revise and revise again. Use what works for you. Toss the rest. Use your instincts. Believe in yourself and in your work.

Don’t forget that Friday is a special Q&A day. Post that day or e-mail Jillmonroe @ cox.net (no spaces)

46 Comments:

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Grrrrr. I already see an error. I used a "you're" when I should have used "your". Don't you hate that? I read the thing 20 times!? LOL That's a pet peeve of mine, too!

If anyone is brave enough, feel free to give us a paragraph that we can all try to make tighter.

 
At 10:08 AM, Anonymous bria said...

I just want to say thanks - all these specific post have been very helpful as I look at my own work.

I especially loved the idea of doing a side by side comparison to see which suggestions change my voice!

Thanks Ladies!

 
At 10:14 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I'm probably a lot wordier than Theresa :-) but one tip I use for myself is to cut into two any sentence that winds up four lines long or more.

I also try to avoid weak and vague words like go, get, went, do. I try to make things more tangible, something that creates a picture for the reader.

 
At 10:27 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 11:28 AM, Blogger TiffinaC said...

I have a q...when does the apostrophe go before an s and after? I know there is no apos. for plural...and that is about the only rule I know where those little dohickey's are concerned.

When I've completed my work for the week...i do a search for all the was followed by 'ing' I love them way too much! Though some I have to keep, 'cause I can't see any other way to put them in there, most are big uh-huh moments with the smack to forehead...

And the words I always mix up when writing... further and farther. Search and replace is my friend.

And a site I love for grammar help (Gleason's tips are awesome, btw and I can say I rarely make those mistakes...*w* insert sarcasm--really it's the truth)

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

 
At 11:41 AM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

I'm very wordy. I was encouraged to be when I learned to write. More big words? Great! Longer sentences? Wonderful! Long, complex paragraphs? Stupendous!

Now, like many writers, I have to unlearn much of what I learned.

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

This plant's leaves are green.
One plant.

These plants' leaves are green.
Multiple plants.

Took me a while to realize further and farther had two separate meanings, as opposed to toward and towards, for example. Farther is real distance. "It's a little farther."

Further is hypothetical distance. "Let's discuss this further."

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

There's always something new to learn, isn't there?

 
At 12:06 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Hey, Esri, I like the way you explain when to use further and farther. Awesome.

Also, I used to love reading Kathleen Woodiwiss. Her older romances are what most of us would call wordy, right?

There are LONG beautiful sentences with NO wasted words that work...and then there are long sentences that makes your head hurt. The latter are usually the ones cluttered with weak verbs and wasted words.

 
At 12:12 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Another confusing instance of 's

If the word naturally end's in "s", like
Perkins's

 
At 12:15 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Hmm. Are historical novels more wordy by virtue of their genre? This particular blog is chock full of great info for a newbie like me!

 
At 12:17 PM, Blogger doglady said...

So, now, thanks to his mother’s noblesse, he had listened for nigh on two hours to a rambling oration on everything from people who cheated at cards, to spendthrift wives and children, to sons and daughters of the peerage who had nothing better to do than rob good citizens of their only means of transportation. Another hour of this and he would hand Sir Delbert a list of the names of every person in attendance at the wedding and invite him to visit each and every one of them in search of his three, no doubt, broken down horses. Anything to get the man out of his house.


Okay, ladies, have at it! Be gentle!

 
At 12:23 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Tiffany, when apostrophes are used to make nouns possessive (to show ownership) we add an apostrophe and the letter “s” to nouns that are singular.

My dog’s ears are floppy.

When singular or plural nouns end with the letter “s” we don’t usually need an “s” AFTER the apostrophe.

The horses’ hooves were huge.

So, in the case of the word “plants” you would only add an apostrophe and NO “s” if you were talking about something that belonged to the plants (i.e. their tips, stems, etc.)

Trish Mi, am I right? :)

 
At 12:39 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

The apostrophe is one of my pet peeves. I go a little bananas when I see them used incorrectly in everyday life. For instance, we drive through a little town on the way to my father-in-law's house that has a restaurant sign that always drove me nuts before they got a new, correct one.

Previous version:

Three Sister's Restaurant

Ack!!!

New, correct version:

Three Sisters' Restaurant

Three sisters own a restaurant, so the possessive apostrophe needs to show it belongs to all of them, not just one of them.

It also could have conceivably been called Three Sisters Restaurants if that was just a name and didn't need to show possession, like if it were called something like Three Coconuts Restaurants. Coconuts obviously don't own a restaurant.

 
At 12:43 PM, Blogger TiffinaC said...

Yes, that is exactly how I deal with further vs. farther. I think it's a cross border thing too. Us Canadienne's tend to use the British system. It took a while for my cp's to get me to stop using towards... and we don't tend to use farther all that often, everything more or less, is further.

And then there is all those words we like to add 'u's and reverse letter... I'm cured of it now... my dictionary in word is set to American since I'm sub'ing to american agencies.. not more honour, humourous, colour, favourite, centre, theatre, manoeuvre...if only you could see my spell check having a heyday! :D

 
At 12:46 PM, Blogger TiffinaC said...

Oh, great examples on apostrophes thanks! I think I got it now!

 
At 12:52 PM, Blogger Charity said...

This is more of a general editing comment, but I use ReadPlease (http://www.readplease.com/) to listen to what I've written.

Any text to speech program would work for this. I'm forever dropping words or writing officer when I mean office, and so on.

I also run important emails through it as well (email query and so on).

ReadPlease has saved my rear end more than once.

Sometimes you miss that you've written "now" twice close together. Or you hear those filler words. It's just one more way of "looking" at the text.

 
At 1:00 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Thanks, Doglady. I like that para. Here's my first go at it:

Thanks to his mother’s noblesse, he had listened for two hours to a rambling oration on everything from people who cheated at cards to sons and daughters of the peerage who had nothing better to do than rob good citizens of their only means of transportation. Another hour of this and he would hand Sir Delbert a guest list inviting him to visit every one of them in search of his three, no doubt, broken down horses. Anything to get the man out of his house.

 
At 1:13 PM, Anonymous beverley said...

Historicals are wordy and I'm even wordier. I'm revising my second book now and boy, I really love to ramble as I've found out. LOL!!! But sometimes I am afraid that too much cutting will change my voice. I know writing tight is general but don't you think it changes for each genre (and perhaps story or voice) of what exactly writing tight is?

 
At 3:59 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Thanks, Theresa! That really works for me. Just a nip here, a tuck there and it is tighter. This is really helpful for someone like me who loves to talk. (You never would have guessed, right?) :0

 
At 4:07 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Charity: Fascinating way to check your text!

My version of Doglady's text (ooh, you're brave...):

Now, thanks to his mother, he had listened to a rambling, two-hour diatribe on people who cheat at cards, spendthrift wives and children, and -- most importantly -- sons and daughters of the peerage who had nothing better to do than rob good citizens of their only means of transportation.

Another hour of this and he would hand Sir Delbert a list of every person who attended the wedding and invite him to visit them all in search of his three nags. Anything to get the man out of his house.


This might be my last comment for the rest of this week, as I'm going out of town. Or it might not, depending on how packing goes and what the wi-fi situation is at the hotel.

Have fun, kids!

 
At 4:13 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Before I go, I have to mention a pet peeve of mine: excessive prepositions.

She got up out of her chair.

Should be, She got out of her chair.

Or "She got up from her chair."

Three prepositions is just greedy.

 
At 4:15 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Thanks for the "tightly written" post Theresa!

I'm a big fan of cutting but I don't always do enough, lol. You can probably tell from my posts that I tend to go on and on and on when I get my hands on a keyboard... ;-)

Doglady, I think your para is wonderfully written. I like the sound of this story! I have to confess that it took me a few read-throughs to "get it." Probably this is my eyes and brain relating to a context thing, but I think if you took out some of the (albeit very cool) decorative stuff like "so now" "nigh on" "each and every" and "no doubt" you'd have more clarity. imho

 
At 4:20 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Here's something of mine that I've rewritten about a zillion times and still seems too wordy...or something:

This morning, just like every other morning Janie could remember in her twenty-six years, several of Mama’s devoted clients were gathered around the big formica-topped table in the center of the room, tolerating lukewarm instant coffee and funky looking blue poptarts for the chance to watch Mama wield magic with a few astrological charts, some index cards, and a mechanical pencil.

 
At 4:42 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

See, I love to cut, so I can't leave this stuff alone. Packing is going well, btw. ;D

Banks' paragraph:

Just as on every other morning of Janie's twenty-six years, several of Mama’s devoted clients sat around the Formica-topped table, tolerating instant coffee and blue Pop-Tarts for the chance to watch Mama make magic with a few astrological charts, some index cards, and a mechanical pencil.

Give brand names their due with proper capitalization and punctuation. And "funky-looking" is implied by the fact that they're blue, and they're being tolerated. Less is more, in this case. I took out "lukewarm" just because it's a loooong sentence, and instant coffee is bad enough. I changed "were gathered" to sat. More active, and shorter.

 
At 4:49 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Actually, I kind of like your beginning better. Here's another option.

This morning, like every other morning Janie could remember of her twenty-six years, several of Mama’s devoted clients had gathered around the Formica-topped table. They tolerated lukewarm instant coffee and blue Pop-Tarts for the chance to watch Mama make magic with a few astrological charts, some index cards, and a mechanical pencil.

It's great stuff, btw. Forgot to mention that. I'd totally read this story.

 
At 6:18 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great job on the change to Banks' para, Esri.

Charity, do you have the free download version? If not, how much does it cost for the readplease? Sounds very interesting...

 
At 8:07 PM, Blogger Charity said...

I have the free version. The only drawback is the amount of text space is limited, so I can only check a scene at a time (depending on word count) if I'm in listening mode.

I've thought about upgrading, but so far the free version has worked just fine.

 
At 8:20 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Thanks, Esri! Funny how you see words and phrases in a whole new way when somebody else messes with 'em...

And,yeah, I will definitely give the Pop-Tarts folks their due (although knowing Janie's Mama, she most likely bought the store brand). ;-)

Beverley, I've been thinking about your very interesting question. Don't know if these thoughts apply, but have you ever read an author who writes in more than one genre? Do you think his/her "voice" changes from genre to genre?

Obviously the language and style will change across genres but I think in most cases you can still hear an author's voice.

I recently read one of Susan Johnson's contemporaries and while it has very little of the opulent verbiosity (can't think of a better phrase, lol)of her historicals, I could still recognize and appreciate her "voice."

I guess when all is written and done, a good sentence is a good sentence, whether it comes in a Georgette Heyer two-page description of settling in at the opera, or in one of JR Ward's too-hip-for-words one sentence vampire internalizations.

If you write well, you can't go wrong, right? Easy! Dang. I've gotta get back to work...

 
At 8:36 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

"I guess when all is written and done, a good sentence is a good sentence, whether it comes in a Georgette Heyer two-page description of settling in at the opera, or in one of JR Ward's too-hip-for-words one sentence vampire internalizations."

Well said, Banks.

And if we analyze a GOOD sentence, no matter how long or short, the sentence is clear and easy to read. William Zinsser in his book On Writing Well says, “A clear sentence is no accident.”

Zinsser also says, “Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, garbage collectors into waste-disposal personnel and the town dump into the volume reduction unit.”

 
At 8:42 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Doglady, here is my take on it.

So, now, thanks to his mother’s noblesse, he had listened for nigh on two hours to a rambling oration on everything from people who cheated at cards, to spendthrift wives and children, to sons and daughters of the peerage who had nothing better to do than rob good citizens of their precious horses (because I didn't understand what you meant) means of transportation. Another second (because it increases the level of his frustration) of this and he would direct Sir Delbert to visit each and every attendee at this wedding (because that part was confusing) in search of his three, no doubt, broken down nags (to avoid repeating horses). Anything to get the man out of his house.

I do love the wordiness of this!!! I hear a strong historical voice in it and I love historical voices.

Esri, I think you absolutely nailed Banksofmillbrook's almost-there intriguing paragraph (talk about painting a picture! You did it for me, banks!)

But I thought your tightening of doglady's paragraph made it a bit too contemporary for my taste. Which explains why you are so good at what you write

 
At 8:47 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

doglady, except delete "means of transportation," because I forgot to!

 
At 9:00 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Thanks, Diane! I am honored by your comments. This is so much fun!

 
At 9:52 PM, Blogger Santa said...

I am such a late blogger but this is right up my alley. Even as I was searching for one to post, I was making changes to this and other paragraphs. LOL, it never ends. I will try that reading aloud hint. I seem to repeat myself with an alarming frequency.

So, if anyone's still awake, here's a paragraph from my MS:

Jake groaned and shook his head. He knew he couldn’t go there. He really didn’t want to lead her on but at the same time he couldn’t deny the pull he felt when she was around. He didn’t think Melissa was the type of person to settle for less than a committed relationship. However, Jake was determined not to let anyone get that close to him again. He’d learned his lesson after his engagement to Sami crashed and burned six months earlier. It was the final blow to the life he’d built in the city, a life that seemed as solid as granite, but in the end, proved to be as fragile as glass. To be honest he had been feeling lost and moorless in the city for quite some time before Sami’s betrayal and his subsequent return to Ashton.

Thanks,Santa

 
At 10:52 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

for all of you who chastise yourself for repeating things, I'm doing revisions on my latest untitled book. Here is a quote from my editor in the Mills & Boon (UK) office:

"P4, 24, 43, 73, 128, 156, 216, 235 characters’ brows knit on quite a few occasions. Would suggest retaining two and altering the others because if readers pick up on any repetition they could be pulled from the storyline

Count 'em EIGHT instances of "brows knit!" (I hope she doesn't discover how many times my characters' brows rise.)

 
At 11:17 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Santa,
There is nothing wrong with your paragraph, but I think it could be improved.

You employ many "filters," those words and phrases that "tell" us something, rather than getting right down and "showing" us.

He knew. He didn't think. Was determined.

With words like this we only know the character through a filter, instead of being in a deeper POV, directly in his thoughts. Filters slow the pace and muddy up the connection readers feel toward the characters. (and, yes, I use them all the time and then I have to go back and take them all out again!!!)

Here's my stab at your paragraph:

Jake groaned and shook his head. He couldn’t go there, couldn't lead her on. Still, he felt the pull of attraction when she was nrar. But Melissa wasn't the type of person to settle for less than a committed relationship, and no way was he about to let anyone get that close again. His engagement to Sami had only crashed and burned six months ago, after all. Before Sami delivered her final blow, his life in the city had seemed solid as granite--not fragile as glass. To be honest, Jake had been feeling moorless for a long time before Sami dumped him. Perhaps that was why he returned to Ashton.

I know I probably changed the meaning of what you were trying to say, but ignore that stuff. I just wanted to show the difference between being in his thoughts and using filters.

 
At 11:31 PM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

I'm awake!:-)) Just after lunch time here and it's a gorgeous sunny day Downunder!

Santa, this is uncanny. We had Adelaide yesterday, Ashton today. Adelaide is just down the hill. Ashton is just up the road. Spooky!

I've been loving all these posts - it's all such great advice, and always worth listening to, no matter what stage you're at.

Now to your para - you know, I'd be tempted to really tighten his thoughts. Like so -

"Jake groaned and shook his head. He knew he couldn’t go there. He really didn’t want to lead her on but at the same time he couldn’t deny the pull he felt when she was around. He didn’t think Melissa was the type of person to settle for less than a committed relationship (and) Jake was determined not to let anyone get that close to him again."
Not after Sami.
(Her betrayal had been) the final blow to the life he’d built in the city, a life that seemed as solid as granite, but in the end, proved to be as fragile as glass.

If I could work out how to put *Not after Sami* in italics I would. Meanwhile *Her betrayal* hints that she's done something terribly wrong, but we don't know what. Keeps that reader asking questions whereas the para as is just dumps too much info at once on the reader. You want to feed it in bit by bit - maybe even use dialogue? A conversation between the hero and heroine is a cool way to tell the reader this kind of thing, and show his bitterness in his gestures and tone.

Re the last sentence, it's important, but I don't know if this is the place for it. If he's just pulled back from some kind of love scene or similar interaction, which is the impression I get, then his thoughts would be a lot more jagged. (He might even think it when he's having that conversation with Melissa about Sami. Because by that stage he's beginning to see the light.)

 
At 12:18 AM, Blogger Santa said...

This is fabulous!

Prior to this paragraph, Jake has just gotten off the phone with his ex (who wants to make amends). It's detailed there what her betrayal was. He plainly states what he thinks of her and to forget about any kind of reconciliation.

After the paragraph I posted he talks to his buds over beers. They share no great love for Sami. He doesn't talk to them about Melissa at this point.

I have him raking his fingers through his hair. LOL, that may be one of the things I repeat. Jake may be bald by the end of this process!

Thanks for the clear cut advice about show and tell and getting rid of those filters. It's so much easier to edit, for newbies like me, when it's spelled out so clearly.

This is one of the best blogs I've posted on!

 
At 5:52 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Diane, how very generous of you to share your editor's comments.

I am always amazed at what I repeat when I go back and read. Once I had six "extraordinary"'s and four "inept"'s in one scene.

It's like a bad song that wont' get out of your head. ;)

 
At 7:22 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Ooo, I like Trish Mo's point not to give too much away!

 
At 9:07 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Trish Mo and Diane, thank you so much for giving so many great tips. These examples are wonderful.

Charity, I tried the readplease and that is so cool! I think that's going to help me a lot. Thank you.

And Beverley, I thought a lot about your question, too, and I do agree that different genres, like historical, tend to have longer sentences...a different flow...more description, etc. BUT no matter what genre you write in, you want to make sure your sentences, whether long or short, make sense and are easy to read. In my opinion, if you have to read a sentence more than once to understand its meaning, then it needs some work.

 
At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Kristin said...

Oh, I'm so glad to have found this blog at last. Been hearing about the Wet Noodle Posse for years and had no idea who they were. lol

Great tips. I'm going to print this post out and tape it to my computer desk.

 
At 10:51 AM, Blogger CM said...

All these examples of tightening are awe-inspiring. I agree with Kristin--this whole series of posts has been incredibly helpful so far.

 
At 11:02 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

CM, Kristin, and everyone who has stopped by, I wanted to say thanks for visiting and commenting.

Friday will be question and answer day. All questions are welcome and will be answered by at least one Noodler.

Trish Mo, I agree that these tips are great reminders for all writers, no matter what stage they are at in their writing career. And there is definitely something spooky going on with the Adelaide and Ashton names...I wonder what name it will be today! :)

 
At 11:30 AM, Anonymous beverley said...

Thanks ladies, I get your points, and yes, a good sentence regardless of length, is a good sentence.

 
At 7:30 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

(Chiming in from the road)

Diane: You're right, my revision of Doglady's historical excerpt does make it sound more contemporary in tone compared to most historical fiction. I'm not sure that what you describe as "wordiness" is necessary for historical accuracy, however. Below is a letter from Regency "It" girl, Duchess of Devonshire Georgiana Spencer, to her mother.

Lord R. took me all round the Park which seems to be extremely fine and it is amasing what improvements he is making. He shew'd me too his new Apartment which is not quite finish'd but will be a Glorious one. It was with great difficulty I got dressed for Dinner and I found all the company (with the addition of Sir George and Lady Armitage and a Mr and Mrs Hall) assembled. We play'd again at Whist and after supper Sir George Armitage, who has a very fine voice, sang to us.

There are some distinctive vocabulary choices ("extremely fine"), but Georgiana is pretty crisp in her sentence constructoin.

When I think of lush wordiness, I think of Jane Austen, but in that instance we may be talking about a certain author's voice rather than how everyone spoke -- and I sometimes have trouble deciphering Ms. Austen's meaning. She's a hell of a plotter, though.

I'm not making any particular point here, btw. Just playing and exploring.

 

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