Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Trimming the Fat: When Good Writing Goes Rogue

Last week I went to my writing group's monthly meeting. This month, the meeting was about keeping your writing trimmed and toned. A lot of good tips and suggestions were shared, and I thought I'd pass some on.

Adverbs and Adjectives
The first thing I do when I finish a draft is search the entire document for the dreaded "ly". Every time I find one, I highlight it in a bright color. Once that's done, the adverbs will stand out as I do my re-read. That's when I axe them if I can.
Sometimes a well placed adverb is okay, just don't use them to excess. One of my biggest problems in this area is dialogue tags. When I draft, I tend you overuse adverbs when people are speaking: "Hey!," she said emphatically. In this case, she could just say it. Get the tone of your dialogue across with actions. Remember, show don't tell.

The same goes for adjectives. A few well placed adjectives will develop the scene enough to let the reader take it away.

Passive Voice
Here's another one that gets me every time I draft. Forms of the verb "to be" are nice, but remember that you are a writer. We have a whole dictionary of words to use, so why use something boring like, "She is pretty."?

This is another instance when showing, not telling, can help. In that sentence above, it gets what I'm trying to say across, but it doesn't paint any kind of picture for the reader. Is the girl pretty to the narrator? To everyone? Something like this would work much better:
When Beatrice entered the room, everything stopped. The waiters looked up from the shrimp cocktail on their trays. Even the piano player paused in the middle of his song. Everything about her took my breath away, from her fiery red hair, to her glossy lips.

Whenever possible, try to make your words do double duty. The passage above not only tells us that the narrator thinks Beatrice is attractive, but it also sets up the scene. There are waiters and a piano player. Without flat out saying it, I've managed to set up an upscale cocktail party.

Crutch Words
Another thing that haunts us all in our first drafts. Sure, saunter is a good word, but if you use it 30 times, your reader will notice. No matter how great it is.

My crutch word isn't a word at all, it's an action. My characters always seem to be smiling after they speak. I try to cut it whenever I see it. Often I find myself replacing the smile with something more appropriate to the scene. In my first draft I think of the smiles as placeholders for something better.

A fun trick to figure out your crutch words (beware, sometimes the word can vary from chapter to chapter) is to paste a piece of your WIP into wordle. It analyzes what you copied in, and spits back a word bubble. The more you use a word, the larger it is.

Here's one I created using the story F.E.A.R Itself.

What about you? Any tips to trim and tone your writing?

No tips? Tell me what your crutch word is instead.


  1. Have I already told how much I love your idea of highlighting the -ly adverbs? I really do have to do this.

    The tip on using Wordle was great.

    There was a lot of good information exchanged during that meeting.

  2. I use way too much passive voice, and you're right: there are so many other good words out there!

  3. Trimming the fat! I like how you set it up and explained it! What a creative way to handle it!

    Passive voice will kill you and it's one of my major downfalls at times!!! Need to keep it strong!

    Now I'm headed over to twitter to make sure I'm twitter stalking you!

  4. My crutch word is now. Everything is done right now;) And my characters love to smile, too. Maybe I should make them frown more, lol!

  5. David Levithan said to get rid of "really" and "just" because 9 times out of 10 they are totally meaningless in the sentence. I thought that was good advice. I'm going to go through and look for those...and I love the idea of highlighting the -lys.

  6. Great tips! My crutch words are definitely "then" and "just." ARGH.