Don’t Muddle Your Message

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie  Renner, editor & author

After your first (or second or third) draft, it’s time to go through your manuscript to cut out any unneeded words that are just cluttering it up.

Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book.

Wordiness gets in the way of a free, easy, natural narrative flow and wrenches your readers out of the fictive dream by subliminally irritating them and making them wonder if there are better ways to use their time.

Here’s an example of minor wordiness that disrupts the flow and slows down the pace. This is a well-disguised passage from my editing of a few years ago. For the “Suggested changes” section, I’ve crossed through all words to be removed and underlined words added, and I changed the font color to red, to imitate Track Changes, which most editors use these days. My notes and comments are in italics.

Genre: crime fiction

Setup: McRae is a homicide detective who’s just arrived to search the home of a murder victim and begin questioning neighbors. He’s speaking to a young man named Rod who lives next door.

Original excerpt:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me? Are you hiding something, Rod?”

Rod’s eyes involuntarily traveled to the porch lamp by the door.

McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He stretched his right hand up and felt a small box of some sort. He pulled it loose and saw it was a magnetic case of the kind used to hide spare keys. He slid the top back and the key was missing from inside.

McRae extended his palm out, and Rod seemed to deflate. Rod reached into his jacket pocket and produced a brass key.

McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves,” McRae said, and looked around. “They’re mostly retirees in this complex, so they should have been home last night,” McRae suggested. “If he was killed somewhere besides in his own home, we have to find that place, and finding his car might tell us something about where he was before he was killed.”

If no one saw him leave, they would have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. There was no evidence of a crime having taken place there, but the missing car presented another set of theories.

Suggested changes:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me?  Are you hiding something, Rod?”
Rod’s eyes flicked involuntarily traveledto the porch lamp by the door.
– The tighter wording reflects the quick action.
McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He stretched his right handreached up and felt a small metal box. of some sort.  He pulled it loose and saw it was a magnetic case of the kind used to hide spare keys .  He  slid the top back. No key. and the key was missing from inside.
– No need to say “his right hand” as it doesn’t matter which hand, and we assume if he’s reaching for something that it’s with his hand.
– No need to say “he saw” as we’re in his point of view, so we know it’s what he’s seeing.
– The rest of the changes in the above paragraph just reduce excess wordiness to reflect his inner thought patterns at that moment.
McRae extended his palm out, and Rod seemed to deflate. HeRod reached in his pocket and produced a brass key.
– “out” is redundant. Also, it’s best not to keep repeating names – the new “He” refers to the last male mentioned, so Rod.
McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves.” HeMcRae said,  looked around.  They’re mMostly retirees in this complex, so they should have been home last night.,” McRae suggested. “If he was killed somewhere besides in his own homeelse, we have to find that place, and finding his car might tell us something about where he was before he was killed give us some clues.”
– Replace “he said” or “she said” with action tags whenever it will work. When “he said” or “she said” is followed by an action, most of the time it’s best to take out the he or she said, as the action indicates who’s speaking.
– No need to add additional speech tags within a short paragraph of someone talking. We know it’s still that person speaking.
– “finding his car might give us some clues” sounds more like a terse, busy detective than the longer original wording, so more in character, especially for a male.
McRae would have to question all the neighbors, because if no one saw him leave, they’dwould have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. It didn’t look like itThere was no evidence of a crime having taken place there, and the missing car presented another set of theories.
– In fiction, it’s almost always best to use contractions (we’ve, I’m, she’s, they’d, etc.) in casual dialogue and thoughts.
– The change in the last line to reduce wordiness makes the detective’s inner reasoning sound more natural and casual.

A tighter final version:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me? Are you hiding something, Rod?”

Rod’s eyes flicked to the porch lamp.

McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He reached up and felt a small metal box. He pulled it loose and slid the top back. No key.

McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves.” He looked around. “Mostly retirees, so they should have been home last night. If he was killed somewhere else, finding his car might give us some clues.”

If no one saw him leave, they’d have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. It didn’t look like it, and the missing car presented another set of theories.

By cutting back on the wordiness, we’ve not only picked up the pace and made the narrative flow more effortlessly; we’ve also deepened characterization of the detective. The original, more stilted version seemed like the author telling us things, whereas in this final, more relaxed version, the wording keeps us firmly in the point of view and voice of this busy male homicide detective.

So look for all those “little word pile-ups” in your manuscript and see if you can smooth out the sentences by deleting extra words. The end result should be not only faster pacing and more tension, but will be much closer to how that character would actually speak and think.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversDo any of you have any before-and-after examples to share of tightening up your writing? Leave them in the comments below!

Books by Jodie Renner:
~ Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories   Amazon.com   Amazon.ca   Amazon.co.uk

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.co.uk

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction  Amazon.com    Amazon.ca    Amazon.co.uk
~ Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk
~ Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips  Amazon.com,  Amazon.ca,  Amazon.co.uk
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13 thoughts on “Don’t Muddle Your Message

  1. I love looking at before and after examples of editing, because I tend to wordiness myself, and sometimes I don’t even see the clutter until someone else points it out.

    I have a question about description. Obviously it’s a YMMV situation, also dependent somewhat on genre, but how would you evaluate the more lyrical prose? Laini Taylor and Holly Black in YA both write with gorgeous description that does not clutter up the page. Most people cut all but the most necessary description, but if you do feel more is necessary, how would you edit it so the passage still moves?

    And, YAY! You have a new book coming out! *hovers over buy button*

  2. Hi Elizabeth,

    Expectations for description vary by genre, but in general it’s best to always tie any descriptions to the POV character and their preferences, mood, and attitude, and don’t mention things they just wouldn’t notice or care about.

    Hope that helps. More on that in my upcoming book! 😉

  3. Jodie,

    Thanks for a great teaching moment. Seeing the before and after is really helpful.

    I think some of your readers got caught in Tuesday’s post going up early (above this post). But this is great information, and Elizabeth and I are enjoying it.

    I look forward to reading your new book. And I’m looking forward to seeing you in Nashville at the writers’ conference.

    • Thanks, Steve! Yes, there was a bit of a mix-up with the postings today, so a lot of people might miss mine. Sharing on social media would be greatly appreciated!

      And I’m looking forward to meeting you in person next Saturday! 🙂

  4. More examples than I can count. I even tightened it up even more when I did the paperback layout. I use too many names and am working on that one.

    I was schooled hard in using passive action words: saw, tasted, felt, etc. and point it out when I beta. The words “see” and “saw” can almost always be killed with fire.

    I just made a change in the new WIP based on this reminder (CAPS for emphasis:)

    BEFORE:

    A knock at my office door interrupted my musing. Hopefully, part of the solution had just arrived.

    “Come in.”

    She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, I COULD SEE THE HORIZON OF FORTY ON HER FACE, but she owned it.

    AFTER:

    A knock at my office door interrupted my musing. Hopefully, part of the solution had just arrived.

    “Come in.”

    She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, THE HORIZON OF FORTY WAS CLEAR in her face, but she owned it.

    Can’t wait for the new book. Terri

    • Good stuff, Terri! Yes, if we take out instances of “I saw,” “I heard,” etc. and just state what was seen or heard, it brings the readers closer in to the character’s POV and the action, which is always a good thing!

  5. Great example of before and after. And good for me to hear today as I go back in and strart pruning my just finished masterpiece. (hack! hack!) What’s the old Stephen King quote?

    2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%

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