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Omit Needless Words & Tighten Your Writing: Part I

 

You hear it all the time, "omit needless words," "tighten your writing," and maybe you're thinking, huh?  What words?  How?  What don't I see?  How do I learn?  I'm going to try and point out some things to look for, but I don't think the knowledge won't will really soak in unless you're willing to you'll treat it as an exercise and get into it.  So grab a few pages of your manuscript (double or triple spaced) and a red pen and get ready to wage war on extraneousness.  This will be is a series, so keep your pages and mark them up as we go.

Disclaimer:  I am no expert at this. I'm just trying to share what I've learned and may make errors or omit important info in doing so.  Please add to the lessons in the comments!

ADVERBS AND ADJECTIVES:

The Adverb: 

An adverb modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb.  They often end in -ly, but don't always, and tend to qualify, intensify, or downtone what you're saying.  They also ask a question such as, How? When? Where? How much? or Why? 

The cat jumped quickly leapt onto the couch. 

The boy walked slowly and carefully tiptoed out of his room.

John ran quickly from fled the scene.

"Get rid of those words!" she said loudly and hastily shouted.

I really want you to understand this.

It's very quiet here.

This is really, quite fun.

Sometimes you need adverbs to convey something more than your base words do alone, but if they're not adding to the sentence, cut!  Check them all, especially your -ly words.  Remember: Weak verbs depend on adverbs.  If you feel you need an adverb, examine your verb before moving on.

Here are some adverbs to look for:  very, not, too, really, basically, in a sense, rather, quite, extremely, totally, essentially, somewhat, almost, a bit, a little bit, nearly, severely, sort of, kind of, etc.

The Adjective: 

An adjective describes a noun or pronoun and tends to answer a question such as What kind? How many?  How exactly? or Which?  Adjectives are interesting because sometimes you're removing one to tighten a sentence and sometimes you're adding one. 

An adjective needs to go if your noun or sentence implies the description your adjective offers (is redundant).  Make sure your adjective is telling us something your noun absolutely cannot.

Examples:

The icy icicle hung from the ledge.

The fragile glass shattered.

The hot summer sun seemed stagnant that summer day.

It was a horrible, horrible crime to shoot that woman.

The small baby didn't like the harsh cackle of the evil witch. 

The loving mother hugged her child and said, "My heart is yours."

He was a furious, violent, and rabid man. (In this case I'm getting rid of two adjectives and keeping one that implies the other two).

An adjective should be added if it can replace a clause or phrase and still convey what you want to convey.

Examples:

The woman was very intelligent and knew all about knowledgeable in physics. 

With little thought or care Irresponsibly, the couple left the dog on the side of the road.

He was deserving of deserved the award.

The haze of the atmosphere atmospheric haze was thick.  (Watch out for "of the.")

A large number of Many students love her. 

It was within the realm of possibility that possible she had magic. 

And so on and so forth. 

***

Here is an example of a sentence that could be edited of adverbs and adjectives:

A harsh, wicked wind swept quickly through the empty streets that cold, stormy night and made a loud, mournful sound outside my thin window.

Becomes:

Wind swept through the streets that night and howled outside my window. 

Or:

That night, wind swept through the streets and howled outside my window.

Not the greatest example, but do you see how much faster it reads?  How many less words it uses?  "Harsh, "wicked," and "quickly" are implied by the action of the wind sweeping through the streets.  "Empty" is almost a given and doesn't seem to be relevant.  "Cold" and "stormy" are implied.  "Loud, mournful sound" needed to be replaced with a strong verb.  "Thin" is redundant.

The one adjective I might keep is "wicked."

That night, a wicked wind swept through the streets and howled outside my window. 

The key is not to cut and tighten everything that could be tightened, but to examine whether keeping, discarding, or adding an adverb or adjective best conveys your intent for the sentence in as few words as possible. 

In the comments, please add examples, knowledge, and your own findings in regard to adverbs and adjectives!!  Part II is now available. 

28 comments:

  1. What a great blog. I think you really hit home the point. I need to do this in my writing, i often use unneeded words.

    ann

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  2. "Here are some adverbs to look for: very, not, too, really, basically, in a sense, rather, quite, extremely, totally, essentially, somewhat, almost, a bit, a little bit, nearly, severely, sort of, kind of, etc."

    If you (like I) have a bad habit of doing this, one way to get help is to use MS Word's style checker. I know, we all hate the grammar checker in Word. It's a terrible, nasty, horrid thing, and I'm not just saying that because it turns my writing into a see of squiggly green worms. However, if you go into the proofing settings (it's in different places depending on if you use Office 2007 or not), you can change it from "grammar only" to "grammar and style." It'll mark all of your split prepositions and passive voice, as well as unneeded words like the ones above. As always, take the comments with several tablespoons of salt, but it does help. :)

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  3. This is a great post for writers to print out and keep with their "editing/revising kits" :0)

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  4. Love this post!

    After only a few snickers and several stern looks, Health 1 is over, which also means the end of the day and decision time. Should I stay or should I go? Go to…what? They just want me to come and find out. I seriously don’t get it.

    Okay...
    After a few snickers, Health 1 is over. That means the end of the day. Decision time. Should I stay or should I go? They want me to come and find out. I don't get it.


    Okay, so I used the find feature in Word on my 9000 word ms and this is the first paragraph I came to with a lot of ly's.

    I understand your points, but it's surprisingly hard when it's your own writing...I am dying for Part II.

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  5. Great job Casey-- my writing has greatly improved learning those little tricks...I find my second and third manuscripts are better b/c of it!

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  6. Well said and illustrated with fine examples. The only thing I have to add is that while cutting words does make the writing tighter, it also changes the rhythm of a sentence. Tight writing is important, but good prose is a kind of music, and sometimes an extraneous word is a necessary note in the symphony.

    (And I'd keep "wicked" for mood. "Howled" might get the job done, but if you keep wicked, there's no question about the wind's ill intent and the promise of horrible things to come.)

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  7. One of the tricks I use with MS Word is to do a Find for a word and Replace it with the same word but highlighted. Then the problem becomes very obvious. This also works for phrases. I didn't realize I overuse "of the" until I highlighted all them.

    Using wildcards is a great way to find words ending with -ly or -ing.

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  8. This is ESPECIALLY true for picture books. You have 500 or so words total, so make sure you don't use any that aren't absolutely necessary.

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  9. Ain't that the truth, Corey! That reminds me...I have yet to send you the work you offered to critique. On it.

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  10. Great reminder. First draft can be especially bad.

    I like the Replace with highlighting suggestion. I'll have to try that . . .

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  11. Great advice. I've been working on this.

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  12. Thanks Ann! I think we all do.

    S. Kyle, great advice! I have mine set to check grammar and style.

    Thanks Kristi! There are going to be several more posts to add to the kit.

    Love your revision, Jonathon! You could even stand to lose "That means" unless it goes with your character's voice.

    Thanks Christina!

    Great thoughts, Paul! I completely agree. Sometimes exchanging a phrase for an adjective can really throw things off. You've got to weigh what you want for each and every sentence!

    I love find and replace, Thermocline. Great tip!

    I can only imagine how precise you have to be with picture books, Corey! Kudos!

    Thanks Janet and Lotusgirl!

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  13. Tightening sentences is a skill and takes a trained eye. The more you practice, the better you get. **clicking to start cutting**

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  14. Fun, Casey! I love reading writing examples. They are normally so clever :)

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  15. Keep on practicing, Laura! You're absolutely right. I can't wait for the day this stuff comes more naturally. : p

    Thanks PJ!

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  16. Love your blog. You've won an award on my blog today.
    http://kwanawrites.blogspot.com/2010/02/id-like-to-thank-academy.html

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  17. I especially love the clever intro.

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  18. I have a friend who is a wonder at cutting out needless words.

    Looks like you've covered all the bases here. One instance where I'd say makes it okay to keep excess words is when they're part of a character's voice.

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  19. Great post as usual.

    There is a book called _Sin and Syntax_ by Constance Hale, and it is an AMAZING guide. If you want to tighten your sentences and give them the ultimate impact, definitely check it out. A lot of it is commonsensical, but it reinforces things you don't always think about.

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  20. Casey...perfect...need I say more?
    Michelle Bradford

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  21. Casey...perfect...need I say more?
    Michelle Bradford

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  22. "Irresponsibly, the couple left the dog on the side of the road."
    Couldn't we dispense with irresponsibly here? Doesn't the rest of the sentence adequately convey that?

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  23. Good point, Owllady. It's certainly implied. The trimming never ends!

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  24. You are an absolute lifesaver! I am new to your blog, I happened to stumble upon it yesterday when doing some research.

    I have a manuscript that is at the final point before I querry, just need to go through and do some more proofreading. Thankfully I found your post! Love it :)

    You have a new loyal reader. Thanks!

    Angela

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  25. Angela,

    I'm so glad you found my blog. Good luck to you when you start querying!!!

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  26. Great post! I also use the "find" tool in cases like this. I've discovered I use really a lot! I also read my manuscript aloud--that helps with many things, including dialogue and needless words.

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  27. Thanks Casey for this excellent post. Have saved it in my 'favourites'. Your examples bring home the meaning - helpful for someone like me who needs to see the use of instructions.

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