Every gardener knows that flowers and vegetables won’t thrive if you let weeds take over your garden plot. The same is true of writing. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, a short story or hefty book-length project, prose that’s littered with unnecessary verbiage loses its impact.
How do we know what to keep and what to toss out? A good gardener learns the difference between a baby plant they started from seed and an insidious intruder. Before the weeds threaten the desirable plants a good gardener will yank those suckers out of there, allowing vegetables and flowers the nourishment and light they need to survive.
Here are a few tips for weeding your literary garden:
1) Trim back adjective lists. (The tall, slim, vivacious woman with bright red hair and matching lipstick walked up to him.) Leave one or, at most, two adjectives. Make them the most vivid and specific. Readers only retain one or two details per sentence.
2) Avoid unnecessary adverbs. Best-selling horror author Stephen King advises cutting all adverbs, but sometimes these colorful words do add to a scene, if judiciously used.
3) However, be particularly aware of the dreaded -ly form in dialogue tags. (…he said hopelessly; …she commented sulkily.) Instead of tacking on an adverb to label the speaker’s emotion, keep the emphasis on the spoken words, or the character’s actions.
4) “Would” is often an overused word that clutters good prose. Some writers string together paragraphs full of “woulds”. Search on it and, if you find this particularly persistent weed, substitute the root verb form, which is often more direct and powerful. Instead of “he would often attend the opera,” write: “he often attended the opera.”
5) Don’t be afraid to use the strategic incomplete sentence. Writers who insist on every sentence following the Subject/Verb/Direct Object pattern often end up creating a stilted, forced style. This is particularly true of dialogue. Real people don’t all talk like college professors, using perfect grammar.
6) Even a word like “the” can become clutter. (Cluttered: He picked up the hammer, the nails, then the stack of boards and loaded them into the truck. Better: He picked up hammer, nails, and a stack of boards then loaded them into the truck.)
7) Dig out your “pet” words. We all have them. If you think you might be relying too heavily on one or more words, particularly the sort of word that stands out for the reader, use your word processor to search for it throughout the manuscript. You may be shocked to see how many characters use that same word or phrase in their dialogue, or how frequently you use it as your catch-all word for description. (Frequent weeds: big, large, got/get, just, went, going to…, about to…, etc.)
When I’m editing another writer’s work, one of the first things I do is de-clutter it. Think of it as putting your manuscript on a diet. A slimmed-down manuscript reads with more power, better pacing, and will more likely appeal to a literary agent or publisher. It’s just plain better writing—and that’s something we should all aim for.
If you’d like to learn more tricks for perfecting your writing, you might want to check out The Extreme Novelist, my book based on the courses I teach in Washington, DC at The Writer’s Center, and for The Smithsonian Associates educational programs. Short story writers and memoirists will also find loads of information to them. You can order the book through any bookstore, or find it quickly here: https://www.amazon.com/Extreme-Novelist-No-Time-Write-Drafting-ebook/dp/B00WA5FCVK/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1473169296&sr=8-1#nav-subnav
Alicia Street is a USA TODAY bestselling author and Daphne Award-winner often writing in collaboration with her husband, Roy, as well as on solo projects. She spent many years as a dancer, choreographer and teacher. A compulsive reader of every genre, she also loves watching old black-and-white movies and inventing new recipes for soups.