How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: tighten up your writing


Welcome to Part Twenty-Four of this popular series. This week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher looks at how to tighten up your fiction so it avoids the over-writing pitfalls common to inferior, amateurish writers.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Tighter writing

If there’s one thing that divides the amateur from the professional fiction writer, it’s the tautness of their prose style. Amateur writers’ sentences often meander, twist and turn; they use many more words than required; and over-complicate their syntax in an effort to sound sophisticated. This can end up confusing readers, as well as slowing down the action of their story. An agent or commissioning editor will reject a manuscript with writing like this before they reach the bottom of the first page.

Seasoned writers, on the other hand, create crisp, elegant sentences in which every single word is precise and necessary … which have correct grammar and functional punctuation. They will make sure, through several drafts, rewrites and self-edits, that each phrase delivers its message with the fewest and the simplest, though most apposite, words. This makes their writing easy to read and dense with meaning – a fully satisfying experience.

What is loose writing?

While tight writing is so well-honed that you could not remove or change a single word without altering the meaning or spoiling the rhythm, loose writing is full of extra and unnecessary articles, repetition, passive verbs, woolly words and wordy phrases. If you try to read loose writing aloud, it will be hard to make sense of sentences, find a good rhythm and emphasise the right words.

This is not something you need to worry about in your first draft. If getting your story out fast and furiously is the best way for you to write, do it. You can come back and tighten up the style in a second, third and fourth draft. Getting every paragraph, sentence and phrase concise and precise is hard work, and may take longer than writing the story in the first place.

Five tighter writing tips

Here are five questions to check against every sentence as you revise:

1. Have you used the simplest word?

It’s easy, when we write, to try and be too clever; to imagine that a short, everyday word isn’t good enough for the readers of our fiction. We can make the mistake of picking fancy, longer words which are less accurate and distract from the flow. Choose the shortest, simplest word which will do the job, and reserve the longer, more abstruse ones for when only they will do.

Use so rather than accordingly; begin or start are better than commence; size is at least as good as magnitude; and, please, never use words like sub-optimal instead of worse – unless you have a character whose dialogue tic is to speak in management jargon.

2. Is every word necessary?

We are lax about language when we talk and our instinct is often to write as we speak, spewing out our usual superfluous verbiage, even if not the ums, ers and ‘you know what I means’. Examine each sentence and eliminate every unnecessary word; combine sentences to remove repetition and to make the writing dense; divide a long, rambling sentence into two or three more compact ones.

Imagine trimming the fat off your sentences with a nice, sharp butcher’s knife until you’ve got a lean piece of steak, by cutting some typically overused phrases down to a single word, like these:

Are in possession of (have); at this point in time (now); is able to (can); in spite of the fact that (although); in the not too distant future (soon); on a weekly basis (weekly); in the vicinity of (near);

3. Are your verbs active and direct?

The active voice is almost simpler and shorter than the passive; it also tends to be a less pretentious way of constructing a sentence.

The door was opened and the guests were greeted by the butler is longer and more pompous than The butler opened the door and greeted the guests.

Be wary of sentences containing “There are/were/is/was…”  and “…who were/are/was/is…”. These introductory and descriptive phrases are usually redundant. Rather than There were some groups of teenagers who were chattering to each other as they walked down the street, write Groups of chattering teenagers walked down the street.

4. Can you cut any adverbs, adjectives or qualifiers?

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King

medium_62003100Adverbs rarely add value to a sentence. If you need to add impact to a weak verb, choose a stronger verb and ditch the adverb. Replace Her fingers moved lightly over the typewriter keys, with Her fingers skimmed the typewriter keys. This is also a way of ensuring you choose the most accurate wording.

Adverbs are at their worst in dialogue tags: ‘I won’t do it!’ Emma shouted angrily is weakened because both her words and the fact that Emma shouted already suggest anger. ‘I won’t do it!’ Emma shouted is both more powerful and pithier.

Mark Twain said it all – and with commendable brevity – about adjectives:

“As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.”

He also made a similar point about qualifiers – words like very, rather, quite, some, which should be deleted wherever possible:

‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”:

your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’

Mark Twain

5. Have you been specific?

Tight, and engaging writing never uses the words like ‘get’, ‘something’ or ‘thing’.

Something made Tom get some things and put them in his bag makes a poor fiction sentence. Readers will want to know what Tom took with him – clothes, documents, plumbing equipment…? – and why he was motivated to do so. Depending on which of these it might be, “got” needs to be replaced by “took from the wardrobe”, picked off his desk” or “scrabbled in the cupboard under the sink for…”. Even the “bag” is too general: a rucksack, briefcase or toolbox is what readers need, to visualise this scene.

Catching sight of Emma’s post-it note on the fridge made Tom scrabble in the cupboard under the sink for his plumbing tools, and shove them into his toolbox.

Although this is longer, it is always the specifics of what, when, how, where and why that move the action on, reveal more about the theme and build characters. If you catch yourself using general words, it will because your thinking and imagination has become vague. Go back into a scene, check each word and rewrite every sentence so they paint a clear, specific and accurate picture for the reader.

Next week we will review the second half of Act Two.

For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

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