My first published story was in ‘Your Cat’ magazine. (Don’t laugh … we all have to start somewhere.) I sent the editor a 1500-word story. She said she liked it (great!) and would publish it (fantastic!) but that I should cut it by a third and tighten up my style.
Ah. Not so good.
I loved every word of that story. I gave birth to each one in pain and suffering, so there was NO WAY, absolutely NO WAY I was going to cut or change them. I was determined. I would stick to my guns. She could forget it. My mind was made up.
Then she said she’d pay me £200 if I did the alterations. I wavered for a whole nano-second. U-turn Queen, that’s me, when it comes to hard cash.
The editing of that heart-warming story about a couple who rediscover their love when their cat has a crisis (it was a real sick-bucket saga) taught me loads. I hated making the changes. I felt like a murderer, slashing and slicing away at my precious text. I could hear those words screaming as they fell, helpless, under my vicious attack.
But what emerged from the struggle was a story far, far better than the original. Maybe I wasn’t a murderer after all. Maybe that was the wrong simile. No, I was a sculptor, chipping away at unnecessary bits, shaping what was left, gradually revealing a thing of outstanding beauty to startle the world’s literati with its crafting, its fine loveliness, its delicacy, its sensitivity.
What crap. See what happens when someone offers me two hundred quid?
Anyway, what I thought would never be possible became so. My story was published, I got my £200 and I was only just a teeny-weeny-weeny bit ashamed that I’d written about a domestic pet who saved a marriage single-handedly.
I convinced myself then that editing is not something you do after writing. It is writing. There aren’t many who can pour seamless prose onto a page or screen straight off, and I am sceptical if creative writing students say, ‘Oh, the writing just comes. I never have to change a thing.’
I once heard a fellow delegate on a lyric-writing course claim: ‘I write songs and God gives me the lyrics, so I never alter them.’ The tutor running the course commented that, having heard his repertoire, he wasn’t at all surprised to find God had wanted to give the songs away.
Cruel, but salutory. Fortunately the delegate found the grace to take the advice on board. It’s a hard lesson, but we have to find our way to being less ‘precious’ about our first drafts – or second, third, fourth, fifth – and craft them until we’ve done our best.
Here are some ‘fine-tuning’ devices I use on my own writing, some aimed at cutting wordage, some at improving the power of the writing and some which achieve both.
Use compound words. Shakespeare was great at these. He wasn’t going to call any of his characters a ‘person who sucks up to others and is just a total pain to everyone in the world’ if he could call them an ‘earth-vexing foot-licker’. He wouldn’t call them ‘someone who was sired by an idiot and who was very slow at speaking’ if he could call them a ‘fool-born mumble-news’.
Now, for your kind of writing, you may not need these particular terms. That’s perhaps just as well. But I decided on ‘mugger-attracting’ rather than ‘likely to attract muggers’ for a Times Educational Supplement article about carrying laptop bags around and ‘paper-aeroplane pen-stabbing chaos’ for one about discipline in class. (Or lack of, in that case.)
Prune prepositional phrases. This sounds technical, but it’s nicely alliterative, hey? It describes all those wordy phrases such as ‘at this point in time’ (er … you mean ‘now’?), ‘during the course of’ (during), ‘with reference to’ (about), ‘in close proximity to’ (near) and ‘from the point of view of’ (according to). Replacing each long-winded prepositional phrase with a shorter one does the job better.
Another tip is to replace long prepositional phrases with ‘-ing’ words: ‘in the attempt to’ can become ‘attempting to’ and ‘because of the fear of failure’ can become ‘fearing failure’. Also, ‘his preposition usage was under the close control of his editor’ can change to ‘his editor closely controlled his preposition usage’; an adverb has been used to replace the prepositional phrase.
Just attacking your prepositions will cut your words, and tighten up your prose. It will also be a good thing to say at parties. ‘So, what do you do?’ ‘Oh, I prune prepositional phrases.’ ‘Ah. I see. [Long silence.] Another drink?’
Change abstract nouns to verbs. This makes writing less abstract and more active. For instance, ‘Fran’s reaction to the word diet was a negative one’ can become ‘Fran reacted negatively to the word diet.’ Changing the abstract noun ‘reaction’ into a verb form makes a difference. ‘The discussion in the Weightwatchers group was about the merits of lettuce' can change to 'the Weightwatchers group discussed the merits of lettuce'. ‘The rapid reduction in numbers in the Weightwatchers group’ becomes ‘The Weightwatchers group’s rapidly-reduced numbers’.
Cut adverbs. My favourite feature on Word is ‘Find’ on the ‘Edit’ toolbar, which I use to search for adverbs. I love adverbs. Passionately. Ardently. But I use them overly unnecessarily and oftenly. So, I type ‘ly’ into ‘Find’ and it sniffs them out.
Sometimes I find them padding out the dialogue with information which is obvious. ‘You’re a rotten two-timing scum-faced bleeder’ she said, angrily.’ ‘Well, you’re an ugly old bat with a body like a bloated blue whale,’ he replied, insultingly.’
But often adverbs are just sitting there, attached to adjectives, such as ‘he was amazingly tall’ or ‘she felt incredibly tired’. In these cases, verbs are more useful. ‘He towered over her’ and ‘she slumped into the chair’ are more active and create images, not vague impressions.
‘Find’ is also good when you discover that your main character has brown eyes in the first chapter and blue eyes thereafter. Just be careful as you work through your script. You don’t want your Hawaiian blue sea to change colour too. It won’t work for the love scenes.
Change passive sentences to active. Scientific texts use passive sentences because they concentrate the reader on the process, not on the person doing the experiment: ‘The peroxide was poured into the test tube’. It won’t matter for a science textbook that the person pouring it in was a raven-haired Depp-esque hunk with rippling pecs and designer stubble (although it might perk up Period 3 for the average 15 year old girl).
You don’t want this kind of impersonal distancing effect in creative writing, though, unless you’re looking for that particular effect or your main character speaks like a robot. So, ‘the instructions on the packet about standing in boiling water for five minutes were misunderstood by Mrs Jones’ changes to ‘Mrs Jones misunderstood the instructions on the packet about standing in boiling water for five minutes’ or, even better, cut out that pesky prepositional phrase to get ‘Mrs Jones misunderstood the packet’s instructions about standing in boiling water for five minutes’.
I even dare to suggest, ‘Mrs Jones misunderstood the packet’s stand-in-boiling-water-for-five-minutes instructions’. But you might think the added comedy element goes too far when there’s poor Mrs Jones with her legs as red as a
Simplify vocabulary. We like using ‘good’ words which make us sound intelligent, but it doesn’t always work. It depends a lot on what you’re writing. ‘Liam consumed his Pot Noodle while conversing with Kylie about the footie on telly’ just doesn’t hang together. One reason we have so many synonyms in the English language is that we have words from different linguistic influences meaning the same thing. Here, ‘consume’ and ‘converse’ are the Latinate words meaning the same as our AngloSaxon words ‘eat’ and ‘talk’. And sometimes the more complex words are the right choice, especially if you’re parodying Dickens or your character is a pompous, pretentious git.
But often they’re just an attempt to impress. It’s not worth it. Indisputably. Deffo.
Use specifics, not generalisations. There’s your character,
, waiting ‘outside a pub’ for her
date. You can say a lot more about
setting or characters or mood by being specific: ‘ Charlotte waited outside the King’s Arms/The
Fox and Hounds/the wine bar with music pulsing from its doorways’. Each of these specific details does a better
When she gets fed up with waiting, don’t have her getting into her car. What kind of car? When she goes to the shop to buy something for the meal she is obviously going to have alone, don’t let her just buy ‘something for dinner’. Is she going to cook herself steak and onions with a grilled flat mushroom, a can of beans and a loaf of bread, or a dish of arsenic?
Specifics can be used within comparisons. For instance, in the section on ‘passive sentences’ above, I wanted you to know exactly what Mrs Jones’ legs would look like after she’d stood in the boiling water. ‘Red’ was too general. I wanted a particular red: hopefully, one that made you laugh. You cruel reader.
Get rid of the first sentence/paragraph/page/chapter. This is a surefire word-loser, especially if your first chapter is 20,000 words long, although in that case, perhaps you need a bit more help than most. The principle, though, is that we often need a ‘warm-up’ before we get into our writing. The problem is, we leave the ‘warm-up’ in, and then wonder why the beginning of our story, novel or article seems weak.
The teenagers I teach do this all the time. They begin writing a speech about, say, plastic surgery by saying, ‘I am going to talk to you today about plastic surgery. Have you ever thought what it must be like not to be able to show surprise?’ I write a big red arrow against the second sentence and the instruction ‘START HERE’. It’s often the same with my own writing. I feel there is introductory information the reader ought to know so I put this in at the beginning. But what the reader wants is not background, but something to get their teeth into. Background can always come later when I’ve got the reader chewing away nicely.
Here’s what I had to do with my first few sentences to improve this article. And that was just the
‘The first story I ever got published was in a magazine called ‘Your Cat’’ changed to ‘my first ever published story was in ‘Your Cat’ magazine’.
‘I sent the editor a story which was 1500 words long’ became ‘I sent the editor a 1500-word story’.
‘But that it needed to be cut by a third and that the style had to be tighter’ changed to ‘I should cut it by a third and tighten up my style.’