Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 19, 2012

Advanced 'Write Tight'

By Laura Drake

"The secret of good writing," says William Zinsser,
"is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components."

This is one of the first lessons I tried to tackle as a writer. And I needed to. I’ve been known to get a bit carried away with the words, if you know what I mean (my fellow WITS bloggers are snickering – do you hear them?)

For those of you just starting to rein in your rampant prose, the following articles may help:  Here and Here.

I think one of the coolest things about writing is that learning it is like trying to get to the center of a rose that’s opening.  Every time you master one layer, there’s another, more delicate and subtle than the last.

It wasn’t until I tackled a problem with my latest novel that I discovered this next layer. I had a wonderful idea for a story – no, really, it was brilliant! Except for the fact that it sold as a romance, and the hero and heroine didn’t meet right away. So if this was going to work, I needed to crank those first chapters down to their pure essence.

I learned several nuances about writing tight from this exercise:

  • I don’t need all the scenes I wrote. When I went back and analyzed my beginning, my first scene was a couple of pages of description of the world I’d dropped the reader into. I took my Exacto blade and cut it down to one short page of the most important stuff; the sweat from the hot day, the dust from the cattle’s hooves – stuff like that. I learned that a short cameo that leaves questions in the reader’s mind can be a good thing.
  • I’m in love with my words. I get so carried away by my descriptions that I can go too far. They may be pretty, but the reader doesn’t care. They want to see what comes next, and I was slowing the action. Say it once – the best possible way, and then move on.
  • Sometimes what you leave out is more powerful than you can write.

My heroine gets unjustly fired from her job in the second chapter. I had her confronting the person who caused it. It was pithy. It was clever dialog. It felt good to vindicate my character! Then I cut it. As good as it felt to write the scene, it just wasn’t critical to the plot. One of my critters pointed out that by not writing that scene, it made the reader root for the character more. The character was now the underdog, mistreated, but undaunted. I didn’t know that!

Sit down and have a face-to-face with reality; no dodging, no excuses. I looked at my chapters not by how well it was written, but instead, was the scene, paragraph, line essential? Because I didn’t have room for anything that wasn’t. And I was surprised at how much wasn’t!

I had an epiphany! (Don't worry, I went home and changed clothes afterward.) The difference is, instead of writing as I wanted and then cutting the fat, I wrote down the bones, and added muscle. I guess both ways work, but I know I'll only write bones and add from now on. I found it very powerful.

So, did I get it tight enough so the H/H meet fast enough? No. They meet on page 40!  I’m going to save it to sell as a Women’s Fiction instead of a Romance. But I’m so glad I tried, because I learned so much from the exercise.

And man, those 40 pages are tight, gripping, and kick some serious a$$!

0 comments on “Advanced 'Write Tight'”

  1. My old romance with big, wordy descriptions came as a result of my insecurities as a writer. But at the time I didn't realize that I was bogging everything down for my readers. I was either making them feel like idiots or annoying them with my pretentiousness.

    In the end I had to let go and reach for what I normally call an economy of words. Now that I'm working with an editor (an experience covered in my blog), I know it's easier to add to what's already solid than taking away from what's an already shaky foundation.

    1. Joe,
      Thanks so much for your comment - I checked out your blog - you and I are kindred spirits! I can tell you're in love with the words too.

      LOVED the Chicken Dance!

  2. Snorted coffee over your epiphany and changing clothes line, Laura. And, I love your Critters name for crit partners. Woot! Stealing that one.

    Great advice. This article kicked some serious a$$.

    p.s. Am I finally going to meet you at DFWCon? Say yes, say yes, say yes.

    1. Dang it, no! But Jenny will be there!
      Are you coming to Nationals? We need to spend some serious bar-time!

      Thanks, Gloria for stopping, and the Tweet!

  3. I love your whimsical attitude!!! Thanks for the great advice given in an amusing way. You almost make the it sound like the process of chopping away at the superfluous verbiage fun! For sure you're right about it!

    1. Lorraine,
      I didn't find it fun at all (ask my critters, I HATE revisions!) until I found how to write tighter so I didn't have to go back and cut fat later!

      Give it a try, you might like it!

  4. Great post, Laura. I recently realized I wrote faster by writing the bones of the story first, adding muscle later. That epiphany must be catching. 🙂

  5. Laura, this was one of your best and thanks. I started writing about four years ago and my first two drafts were way too long, too wordy or repetitive. Three people, each with different views of my stories, said three different things and each of them became embedded in my brain. One told me she loved my stories but I talked too much. Me? Okay, if anyone who knows me other than you and Gloria up there is reading this is a great snort of coffee. The second one told me she loved my prose but they were too long. Long, rambling prose ... my heart-throb? The third was the killer. My main reader told me that my snappy one-liners were very funny if I wanted to write a comedy routine for Saturday Night Live, but she thought I was afraid to get below the surface. Critters are also great teachers. One or two honest comments can take us a long way to learning how to get to the heart of the story without killing the reader. And I will be so p$$sed if you meet Gloria before me 🙂

    1. Thanks, Florence - I know you're like me in that you're in love with the words too...the cool thing about this is that, once you get the hang of it, it's even more rewarding, because you're not losing any of the great stuff - it's like distilling - it's less, but it's more powerful for it!
      Can't make DFW -- I wish you guys could all make National this year! We could have a WITS bar takeover!

  6. I think writers never stop learning useing the layers of the rose is right on. Now if I could just get my epiphanies to come during the day instead of waking me in the middle of the night, I'd be even happier. 🙂

    1. I'm in the same boat Sharla. I love it when I get woken up in the night and have to race to my pad and pen because it means the story is flowing but I also hate it because sometimes my sleep can get seriously compromised. Especially when things are really flowing and I get woken up again & again!! Ain't it fun though?!
      Yvette Carol

  7. Hi, Laura. Besides the epiphanies, which I also wish would come on command, I LOVED the line "I took my Exacto blade and cut it down to one short page of the most important stuff; the sweat from the hot day, the dust from the cattle’s hooves – stuff like that." That's almost an epiphany for me - cut all you can, but leave some awesome, sensory details. Thanks!

    1. Jennifer - that's exactly my epiphany - I don't have to do without my lovely words - I just select the VERY best of them to put in. I had the delightful surprise of seeing that, alone, they have more impact!

      Thanks for reminding me - forgot to mention that in the blog!

  8. I'm in the same boat with everyone, I write a clever line and love it too much. William Faulkner was brutal but honest when he advised us to "Kill all your darlings." My current writing instructor likens the wordy descriptions setting up a scene or short piece to the writer at the end of a diving board over a pool of cold water. You stand at the end of that board and bounce (adding descriptions) when your story isn't really going to start until you hit the water. You'vegiven great advice to get us off that board and into the water and I thank you for it!

    1. I always think that the pain it takes to learn this is wasted, if I'm the only one benefiting from it Deb. Glad you're able to learn from my mistakes. Go use it!

  9. It's hard to find the balance, Laura. I write really lean -- too lean -- and often forget to include descriptions. So if I could just borrow a few of the descriptive prose you cut...? Just kidding, sort of. LOL!

    Thanks for the great reminder to make every word count.

  10. Oh boy, do I have a bunch of it for you, Sheila! Ask any time! 😉
    But wouldn't you rather layer that in, than cut all your pretty words?
    So much less painful.

  11. You are so right, Laura. My first book was something like 100,000 words and ridiculously too wordy. I cut, cut, cut until it got down to around 50,000+ and now the reader doesn't have to wade through all my "junk", rambling, and over-the-top descriptions to get to the core of the story.

  12. When I first began, a critique came back saying to read the book "Write Tight." Sorry, I don't remember the author. However, I do know it really helped my work.

    Another way to help is to use wordcounter.com. Copy and paste 5,000 words into the program and it will give you a list back. Search for overused words. I truly believe this has helped me lift my work to a fresher level.

    I write short fiction and have to cut adjectives and adverbs all the time. Then I go back and insert them where really needed.

    Good post!

    1. Oh Vicki, it's especially important in shorter fiction. I've recently thought about short stories . . . I'd love to try that, but deadlines loom.

      I was thinking about this while riding with my husband in the car, listening to the radio. Don't you think the best lyrics are just the pure essence we're talking about here? I love artists who can capture a feeling or a moment in lyrics - There are a ton of them - Bono, Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, I could go on and on - but I've given away my age already!

  13. Great post! I never thought of it that way before, to start lean and add muscle. I love it when writers use word devices like this, that can stick in my brain more easily. Makes life simpler! I'm the most verbose person probably in my family, and in most situations. My writing teacher said my sentences were 'encyclopedic'!! Ha ha. Yep, I've got work to do.
    Yvette Carol

  14. I, too, love my words and I tend to write thick with them. I keep going back over my work, trying to cut them down further than I already have. It isn't an easy thing to do. Thank you for this wonderful reminder. It helps keep me on the proper path.

    1. Debra - give it a try like I did . . . Just write one scene 'bare bones' and see if it works. If not, add a sprinkle, repeat.

      I was shocked by what a difference it made. You may find it easier than cutting and slashing.

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