Please welcome Jim Jackson to the blog today. He’s talking about tight writing for which I am grateful because my rough drafts are far from tight.
He hesitated a moment before shrugging his shoulders, finally nodding his head and, in quite an inelegant gesture, he suddenly threw up all over the shoes that she wore that day, almost entirely covering them with the contents of his poor stomach.
If I were to read such a sentence—and it was not intended to be an illustration of inelegant writing—it would be the last sentence I read of that author’s. I don’t expect to find so many egregious errors in one sentence in anything I choose to read. A gradual accumulation of such errors scattered throughout a book has the same ultimate effect on my reading pleasure: it convinces me that the author is not a fine writer. At some point, unless the story was really good, I’d give up and choose something else. Even if I struggled through that book, I’d never read another from that author.
As the title of this piece suggests, my prejudice is for tight writing over loose, sloppy stuff. I fill my first drafts with the type of errors I’ve illustrated. (Not all in one sentence, mind you.) I catch them as I self-edit, but in rewriting I invariably introduce a new problem or two. My penultimate step before sending a manuscript to readers (or to agents and publishers) is to eliminate my excesses. My last step is a final proofread.
I maintain a list of individual words I overuse, redundant or inactive phrases I unthinkingly write and other faux pas I regularly commit. I use Microsoft Word’s search function to find and then correct these potential saboteurs.
hesitated a moment, before shrugging his shoulders, shrugged finally nodding his head and, in quite an inelegant gesture, he suddenly threw up all over the shoes that she wore that day, almost entirely covering them with the contents of his poor stomach spewed vomit on her feet.
This edited version is tight. It might even be too tight and need fleshing out with powerful action or description. For example, in reviewing the edit, I might include a description of the “inelegant gesture” to show what it was, rather than telling of its existence. However, with the initial edit I eliminated many of my pet peeves.
All hesitations are for a moment. It is impossible to shrug anything other than one’s shoulders (although one can shrug into clothes). Two delaying tactics may be one too many, but a third is tiresome (and one can only nod a head). ‘Finally’ occurs in the middle of the sentence. It is not his final act; puking his guts out is.
‘Quite’ is superfluous, and if you require the emphasis, use a more descriptive modifier. ‘Suddenly,’ rarely is. ‘Threw up’ is ugly, but not very active; ‘spew’ paints a more vivid picture. The ’all over’ doesn’t add anything (we didn’t think he vomited a single dainty drop on one toe, did we?) particularly when we are told the vomit didn’t completely cover her shoes.
Replace weak modifiers such as ‘almost’ and ‘entirely’ with specificity. The phrase ‘that she wore that day’ has too many ‘that ‘modifiers. We can assume she wore the shoes and the action did not occur over a multi-day period. Eliminate contradictions and irrelevancies. We want to know why he vomited and what her reaction was. Stomachs are not wealthy or impoverished; save ‘poor’ to describe those without money.
I commit other atrocities in early drafts, but I’ll save you and not describe all my crap writing (n.b. not all OF my crap writing). After I beat my blunders into submission, my final step is to reread the manuscript and discover errors I introduced in fixing the last batch of problems.
Keeping a list of my ineffective writing habits jump-started my ability to spot and correct those errors. Many issues on my initial list rarely crop up in current writing—that self-editing occurs before I type the word or phrase. As with my speaking, I occasionally develop a new habit, which once discovered, I add to my hit list.
If you would like to learn more about self-editing I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King.
About Jim: JAMES M JACKSON is the author of BAD POLICY a mystery for Barking Rain Press released March 2013, which won the Evan Marshall Fiction Makeover Contest whose criteria were the freshness and commerciality of the story and quality of the writing. Known as James Montgomery Jackson on his tax return and to his mother whenever she was really mad at him, he splits his time between the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Georgia’s low country. Jim has published an acclaimed book on contract bridge, ONE TRICK AT A TIME: How to start winning at bridge, as well as numerous short stories and essays.
Visit Jim’s website: http://www.jamesmjackson.com
Follow Jim on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JMJauthor
Like Jim on Facebook: James-M-Jackson
Find him at Writers Who Kill: http://writerswhokill.blogspot.com/
Cindy here again!
Great post, Jim. I definitely need to keep tight writing in mind when I tackle revisions.
What about you? Do you have any favourite words you must slash during revision? Are your first drafts loose?
June 6, 2013 at 8:34 am
Thanks for having me here today. I think you’ve got a great idea for a blog for writers; I’ve put it on my automatic RSS feeds to make sure I get it.
June 7, 2013 at 12:18 am
Thanks for being here, Jim! Thanks. I love to help other writers learn more about the craft. Authors like you guest blogging, sharing your knowledge, help me do that.
June 6, 2013 at 8:46 pm
Excellent tips, Jim! Thanks for sharing your expertise with us. Good luck with your books 🙂
June 13, 2013 at 3:41 am
Thanks for this post, very timely – I’ve added a couple of new words to my list to watch out for.
My big problem is “some” and its variants. I’ve just removed 450 of them from an 80,000 word draft … that’s about one in every 150 words! In pretty much every case, the amended sentence is clearly better than it was before.
June 13, 2013 at 7:02 am
“Some” is one of the words that I now self-edit as I write, but my early writing was as heavily populated with that ineffective modifier as much as your draft.
Best of luck with your manuscript.