by James Scott Bell
Unless you’re writing literary fiction, where an expansive style is part of the experience (e.g., Thomas Wolfe), you should strive to write tight. You’re telling a story. Your goal is to draw readers into that story, fast, and keep them there. Every sentence should serve that purpose. Writing tight means no excessive prose, no over-padded paragraphs, nothing to get in the way of the fictive dream.
Now, this does not mean you can’t have what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. The key word is unobtrusive. It does its work pleasantly, then steps out of the way. Not this:
With sharp whetted hunger he thought of breakfast. He threw the sheet back cleanly, swung in an orbit to a sitting position and put his white somewhat phthisic feet on the floor. (Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe)
Eh? What? Is that a typo? Phthisic? What the heck is that? (It’s actually a word. You can look it up. Which is not a good way to write, sending readers to the dang dictionary!)
The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up. (Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker)
So let’s look at some ways you can write tighter.
In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein defined flab as “superfluous words and phrases.” Most flab comes in the form of adjectives and adverbs. Stein’s advice is to cut all the adjectives and adverbs in a manuscript, then readmit only “the necessary few after careful testing.”
As an example, I want to show you a sentence I read in a non-fiction article posted on a popular sports website. It had to do with NBA Mavericks owner Mark Cuban getting into hot water with the league (a habit with him):
Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and ultimately blamed the officials for the Mavericks ultimately losing the game.
We’ll get to the repetition of the adverb ultimately in a moment. But first, does that word help this sentence in any way? No. It adds nothing but flab. How much stronger it is this way:
Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and blamed the officials for the Mavericks losing the game.
And, of course, using that adverb twice in the same sentence is truly felonious. You need to watch for the same thing in your paragraphs, too. I call these…
Take a look at this:
Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.
The repetition of alone is an echo. While it doesn’t violate any rule of grammar, it is what I would call a little “speed bump” that momentarily takes the reader out of the scene. The repeated sound is jarring.
The solution is simple: cut one of them. You could do it this way:
Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.
Or this way:
Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he didn’t want to talk to anybody.
The exception to this guideline is when you purposely want to emphasize a word, as in the following:
His shirt was black. His pants were black. His boots were even blacker, if that was possible. He looked like Johnny Cash at a funeral.
As I contend in my book on the subject, dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. An agent or editor, or reader for that matter, knows good dialogue because they’ve seen so much of the bad variety.
One of the marks of effective dialogue is compression. Unless there is a reason a character long winded, keep the dialogue tight and to the point.
The easiest way to do this is to cut words. You can almost always cut a word or two out of dialogue and make it sound better. Example:
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Max said.
“Well then, what do you suggest we do?” Henderson said.
“I don’t know, drive around to the back maybe.”
“That would be a stupid thing to do.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because that’s where all the cops will be.”
Can we tighten this up? I think we can:
“This isn’t a good idea,” Max said.
“What do you suggest?” Henderson said.
“Drive around the back maybe.”
“That’s where all the cops’ll be.”
Obviously you adjust according to the way your characters talk. But you will be amazed how much better your dialogue sounds when you trim the fat this way.
How would you describe your default writing style? When first drafting, do you tend to write long and cut? Or do you write lean and add?
I write lean and add, which is tortuous and time-consuming. I envy writers who write too-long drafts that need cutting.
And yet, after “writing lean” you have a better idea of what the book and each scene are about, right? Maybe worth a bit of “torture”? Ha! The pictures that word conjures up…
“He looked like Johnny Cash at a funeral.” – Classic – I think even the Man in Black might’ve smiled at this one…
I TRY to work sparsely, but find I tend to bloviate and obfuscate at first, noticing it in the rereading and so rewrite accordingly… which is true with e-mails/memoranda at the day-job as well (but never here at TKZ…).
Sometimes this gets in the way of progress as I’ll rewrite what I just wrote instead of plowing ahead toward the finish and THEN rewriting – maybe the perfectionist (procrastinator) in me I’ve mentioned here in the past… (however, with the day-job, it serves to keep me employed… nothing like a good “read-out-loud” edit before hitting send…)
(Hmmmm… maybe I do do it here… sometimes… )
as I’ll rewrite what I just wrote instead of plowing ahead toward the finish and THEN rewriting
Perhaps it will come as a small comfort that this is how Dean Koontz writes. I’ve always advocated getting through a first draft as fast as one comfortably can. Working on one page until it’s “right” before moving on always seemed like madness to me. I prefer to lightly touch the previous day’s pages, then move on.
However, Dean Koontz has slightly outsold me…
My first drafts ramble. I’ve grown to accept it. That’s what revisions are for. I recall my first writing group saying “Using a word twice is an echo. Using it three times shows you meant it.”
I run my manuscripts through SmartEdit which points out word repetitions.
On another note, I think the recent health issues have fried my brain. I’ve found myself unintentionally repeating words/phrases in the same paragraphs. It’s as if my brain has forgotten I’ve just used them. Fortunately, I do spot them when I do my hard copy reads.
Terry, it seems in each MS I latch onto a certain word and use it over and over. My wife (my first reader) always laughs. “You love the word weird in this one.”
One time I had several instances of a character touching another character’s shoulder. (Talk about an inapt gesture right now!)
I think I must be a screenwriter at heart because 90% of what I write is dialogue.
For me, short is better.
Cynthia, I think it would be interesting to write a first draft that is mainly dialogue and short scene descriptions (as in a screenplay) then do the filling in on the second draft. No reason that couldn’t work!
Good idea. Will try that.
Great post. Just what I needed.
I tend to write lean and then add. I sent my last book out to beta readers when it was basically a cleaned up rough draft. I learned that my readers wanted more explanation and more character development. When I slipped in a little “unobtrusive poetry” they loved it. I’m trying to learn from that experience for writing the rough draft of my current WIP. Sounds like I should go back and read some of MacDonald’s books.
I’ve read twice Donald Maass’ WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION – on the subject of finding that balance between genre and literary – but I am a slow learner.
By the way, http://www.BetaBooks.co is a great place to find beta readers and organize it all online.
Thanks for all the tips and reminders.
Thanks for the link, Steve, and the remarks. Don Maass is always worth reading. Another good book on style is Word Painting by Rebecca Mcclanahan.
Oh boy, really enjoyed this! Thanks for it…
Long, longer, and longest. I love all that purple prose to death, then try to kill it off with the delete key. For me, that’s easiest. From a child, I could make a one sentence explanation of wrong-doing into a novel-yea, even a three novel series. Drove my parents insane. I can still hear my dad. “Just get to the point, Debo! Did you do it or not?”
What’s hard is spotting the fat to be trimmed. I can do some, but my editor does it better. I aim for 100K, she aims for 80K, and we end up somewhere in-between.
(I looked over this comment and deleted no less than five words. Ha!) 🙂
Good on you, Deb, for mentioning the worth of a good editor. This species is endangered now. They just aren’t being trained as they used to be. So we have to train ourselves as best we can!
I tend to write lean, too lean. The second draft is where I infuse the MS with emotion. On the first draft I may use a generic emotion as a placeholder or skip it entirely (pardon the adverb 😉 ).
Sue, I do the same thing. On a second round I find emotional moments and do a separate, free-form bit, find the gems in that, then put those in the book.
Wish my figure was as lean as my prose!
I too get stuck on a certain word or phrase in each ms. In one book, characters REGARDED each other ad nauseam. Shoulder-touching plagues my current WIP, too.
Strangely, my fiction first drafts are lean but nonfiction drafts are flabby and overwritten. Not sure what that means, if anything.
Jim, thanks for another post with timeless advice that always works no matter what is happening in the world around us. I appreciated the relief of reading about a subject other than the pandemic.
Wish my figure was as lean as my prose!
Interesting point about fiction v. non-fiction. Maybe because the latter is more of OUR thoughts we feel freer to go hither and yon.
Where is yon, BTW?
That’s the signpost up ahead. Takes you straight to yon.
In one of my current manuscripts there’s an awful lot of head nodding. 😎
Great advice. Thanks for the column.
Thanks, Karin. We here at TKZ always strive for “great” in the advice department. We always hope grains of salt are not needed with our columns!
I write very long in the first draft. James Michener style. The seas came in. The seas went out. Deep, geological background. Then I cut over successive drafts. Thanks for a great post.
That’s some kind of first draft, Lance! From the primordial goo to modern-day Texas. At least you know you’ve got plenty of material to chip away…like when Michelangelo said he looked at the big block of marble and cut away everything that wasn’t The David.
I’m working with a significantly duller chisel than old Mike used.
Isn’t that what old Leo DaVinci called him?
Yes, you are right. And the pope called him Mikey piccolo.
Of course you would bring up Robert B. Parker, king of terse. You might vie for the prince title yourself, sir. But then there’s Joan Didion, who does the echo thing to perfection, and who many consider a literary giant (at barely 5 feet tall). I just finished re-reading Play It As It Lays, marveling at her concise prose, among her other writerly attributes.
My own first attempt at a literary work is failing, as my habitual genre is crime/thriller. What started as a widow’s attempt to defy men by creating her own destiny has morphed into a post-WWII conspiracy in which she must do the same thing, but while caught in a monstrous criminal conspiracy. I can’t spend hours describing Mexican beach scenery. Old habits die hard.
Often I launch a chapter with short dialog, which gets me going in the intended direction, at least. Not to say I often get there. My inner editor chops and hacks as I write, but that’s just me.
I used to have a book with the same title as your post, by William Brohaugh. Not sure what happened to it, but he makes some of the same points as you. Thanks for the reminder, now I’ll spend the day rooting through book boxes in the garage.
Thanks for the mention of Bill Brohaugh’s book. I don’t have that one, but I remember him being a trustworthy teacher of writing.
I read Play It As It Lays in college. I don’t remember much about it (nor the movie starting Tuesday Weld). Maybe I should look at it again. But you reminded me of how fond I am of literary controversies, and here is one such: Barbara Grizutti Harrison’s takedown of Didion. Whether you agree with Harrison or not, it’s a good piece to reflect on the whole matter of style.
Sheesh, couldn’t read the whole thing. It’s dense! Reminds me of a paper I wrote in English Lit on a poem by A. E. Housman. Burned midnight oil taking it apart layer by layer, got an A+. But I’m not as intellectually analytical about literary fiction as Harrison. I read the book, I get something from it, I put it down, probably like most readers. Thanks for the link, Jim. I’ll keep it and revisit.
BTW, I’m endorsing Harrison’s viewpoint (necessarily). But like I said, I enjoy these literary controversies. Norman Mailer v. Gore Vidal, et al.
Great advice and examples!
My homeboy Thomas Wolfe was a verbal vomit writer. His first autobiographical novel, LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL, went to Maxwell Perkins at 330,000 words, and the poor editor cut it down over 200,000 words. If the editorial world back then was the same as today, Wolfe would never have been published. Clean prose and storytelling, folks. Clean prose and storytelling.
A number of things to consider about your prose. Genre expectations. A procedural crime style would never work in a romance, and vice versa although the dry style of earlier procedurals rarely works, today. Readers expect to be there with all the senses, or they’ll watch a rerun of CSI, instead. And, in that vein, narrative style changes over time. Don’t use an author from thirty years ago as your style guru. Find someone much more recent. Beware of cleaning up your prose to the extent that you have no style. That’s hard to figure out, sometimes, but it’s worth it to sound like yourself. Grammarly or some other prose police software is meant for nonfiction, not fiction, so use with extreme caution.
Yes, poor longsuffering Max Perkins. Similarly, Bennett Cerf had Ayn Rand to deal with. When the unexpurgated draft of Atlas Shrugged came in, Cerf gently suggested some edits. To which Rand replied, “You vould not cut zee Bible, vould you?”
In the example above, I was more thrown by every sentence starting with a pronoun than by the “alone” echo, heh.
I always write echos when I’m very tired and should have thrown in the writing towel an hour ago. I was revising yesterday’s work and found this gem: “They looked around, but there was no one around, so they followed the fence around to the right.”
You’ve got a good point about the pronoun issue, Kessie. Yes! Especially difficult in first person narration. I think Kris has talked about that here at TKZ. Alternatives to starting paragraphs with “I.”
Love your “gem.” Whenever I find such in my own prose I’m horrified. How could I not remember at the end of a sentence the word I used at the beginning? Sheesh!
Your timing is perfect. I’m trying to finish edits for a 2k short story contest entry that is still like 2900 words. 8-0 Using these tips, I should be able to trim more and tighten it up, though I suspect I probably picked a broader subject than I should have for a 2k story. Oh well. I rarely write short fiction so I’ve got to learn story-breadth somehow.
This is off the subject of writing tight, but one of the paragraphs above reminds me of another problem I see with my own writing (or at least it SOUNDS like a problem to me):
“Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.”
I have a tendency to fall into the trap of not varying sentence rhythm enough.
Back to this topic: I can write tight–eventually–but I have to revise several times to hone it down. Will be glad when I learn to do it more naturally as I write.
Yes, my example was inspired by the hard-boiled prose of a Richard Stark. I love it, but as Marilynn mentioned above, tastes do change. Varying sentence rhythms is a great skill to hone.
Funny, as we’re all talking about cutting and writing tight, I remembered that in the old pulp days, when the authors were paid by the word (often a penny) there would be certain ways to “puff” up the story. My favorite was Erle Stanley Gardner. He’d always put in a a character’s FULL name in dialogue attributions, because that meant an easy extra penny!
“Good morning, Della,” Perry Mason said.
“Good morning, Perry,” Della Street replied.
“Get me Paul Drake on the phone.”
Half an hour later, the detective entered Perry Mason’s office.
“What’s so urgent?” Paul Drake said.
“Sit down, Paul,” said Perry Mason.
Oh, that would drive me nuts as a reader!
What this also reminds me of, however, is when you’re first drafting and trying to keep to whatever word count you committed yourself to for that week or writing session, it can also be tempting to pad the words just for the psychological thrill of meeting your word count goals. LOL!
Oh my gosh! I’m a relative newcomer to authorly stuff, and even I would get my red pen out if I saw that.
If I could get paid by the word, I’d be rollin’…
I tend to write lean and also “lean” toward short, declarative sentence, which of course can make the narrative seem choppy and clipped. There are times for that, of course, but not constantly 🙂
Revision is where I flesh out description, character reaction and sentences themselves, for me. I end up adding a lot of words, but also replace/cut a fair amount of words, so while the end result is longer, word count doesn’t show how much has changed.
I’m rereading the first Matthew Scudder novel right now, and am struck by how Block’s lean, straightforward style conveys so much detail and character. Something I continuously aspire to!
Yes, Block is a Grand Master for a reason. I consider Eight Million Ways to Die to be among the PI classics.
Echoes, adverbs, and too many adjectives. Yep. Done it all. I use ProWriter Add-In on one of my edit passes. One of its thirty-some reports are echoes. Easiest way for me to catch them, and those pesky adverbs as it highlights all of them. Added with all the other reports, it has helped tighten and improve my writing. Of course this is only one tool I use. Your posts and books are also part of my writing and editing library. Thank you.
Happy to be part of that library, Cecilia. Thanks.
Good reminders article.
My mantra from my songwriting days is: “Think loose; write tight.”
Mine is: Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.
Excellent post! My favorite craft topic is writing tight, clean, or minimalist. Hemingway, Carver, Bradbury, Louis L’Amour, really any pulp writer. I love to consume tight prose as a reader, so I’m dedicated to making it happen as a writer.
I like what Hemingway says to Gil in Midnight in Paris: “No subject is terrible if the story is true. If the prose is clean and honest and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”
Sigh…this is why I tried and failed at Hilary Mantel. So wanted to love “Wolf Hall” but the writing was so damn dense. (I’m not short on patience in a book normally). When I tell some people that I didn’t get Wolf Hall they look at me with pity. Poor thing…send her back to the lowlands of crime fiction. Well, the darn book is also written in present tense and every man seemed to be named Thomas. Just shoot me now…
So, I tried this week to read her new one, The Mirror and the Light. Nice beginning, with Anne Boleyn just having been beheaded and there’s a great image of the executioner swaddling the head like a newborn. And I believe in giving every writer a seconed chance. Am going to plow on. But I’m not optimistic. Thanks for listening…
We’re here for you, Kris.
I remember plowing through Middlemarch. Okay, sure, 19th century. But for a hundred pages I’m yelling at Dorothea, “Make a freaking decision already!”
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