Often, when we tinker with our manuscripts we repeat ourselves. Sometimes this is good, as it reinforces critical elements of the story, but sometimes it just gunks things up and tosses in extra words. Here are some tips on finding--and eliminating--those unnecessary words in your own work.
Tell Me Everything
A common unnecessary word or phrase is one that states something the reader can clearly figure out from the text. Trimming it can tighten up the prose and make it read more smoothly.
I darted to the window [and peeked out.] Enzie was running down the walk, waving her arms above her head and yelling.It's clear that the narrator here looks out the window after she darts to it because she tells you what she sees. Leaving in "and peeked out" won't hurt the story, but the goal is to start picking up the pace in this scene since something bad is about to happen. Having a shorter sentence achieves that.
What you can look for: Places where you've shown or implied an action, then went on to explain the action anyway. Senses are common offenders here. You listen to hear, look to see, touch to feel.
(More on eliminating often used words here)
Let's look at one that actually weakens the story by leaving it in:
She sure as spit wouldn't go quietly, [so I would have heard something.]If she didn't go quietly, it makes perfect sense that noise would have been made and it would have been heard. Not only does cutting the back half of this sentence tighten the prose, it ends it on a much more dramatic punch. "She sure as spit wouldn't go quietly" suggests all kinds of interesting things to the reader, while "so I would have heard something" is just flat explanation. Who cares if she would have heard something. But we wonder what she would do to "not go quietly."
What you can look for: Great punchlines that are weakened by explanation or reinforcement of the idea. You can usually tell the lines that land well, and when you end a sentence or a paragraph with those, you entice the reader to read the next sentence or paragraph. If you deliver a great line, and then keep talking, you might be weakening that line.
(More on trimming words from a too-long manuscript here)
Say it Again, Sam
Sometimes we say the same thing in two different ways:
Had she lied about the others or were they cleverly blending in with the mob looking for work? They'd already proven they were sneaky. [The streets were packed and it would be easy to hide in the crowds.]
Blending in with the crowds conveys the same information as saying it would be easy to hide in the crowds. We don't need both. And ending at "sneaky" leaves the reader wondering what else they might be sneaky about.
What you can look for: Repetition of ideas. These are harder to spot because they feel right and are usually well written, so they don't jump out at you. Keep a sharp eye out in scenes you know feel slow, but can't figure out why, or places where you want to trim and don't know what to cut.
(More on cutting down your word count here)
Deja Vu All Over Again
Sometimes a sentence works perfectly well, but it has to go because it restates a similar line used close by in the same scene:
Relief bobbed above my terror for a heartbeat, but finding her first didn't mean we could get to her first. [I risked a look around the edge of the shed.] The woman tracker was by the ramp now, a blue-black pynvium rod in her hand.This type of repetition is harder to judge without the whole passage, but the line, "I risked a look around the edge of the shed" doesn't really add anything to this, especially as the character has been peeking and looking a lot in this scene. Alone it sounds fine, but after three other similar actions, it really stands out, and that will distract the reader.
What you can look for: Similar actions or thoughts in the same scene. These are tough to spot, and the easiest way to do it is to read large chunks at once. That way, you'll remember the three other times you used a similar line in the same chapter and can cut the ones that aren't necessary. If you find yourself using the same word (like look, or peeked) you can a search for them and see how many you used. I've found making them bold and red, then looking at the pages in full page view lets me see how often I've used them.
(More on slashing and burning words here)
Repeating ourselves is so easy to do, especially when we're revising and not reading the story in chronological order. But once you start training yourself to look for them, they tend to jump out at you.
Do you have common words or phrases you look for? Do you have any you know you repeat a lot?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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