It’s a fact. You are. I am. We are all using too many words when we write.
Why not? Watching word counts climb as we type encourages us. Meeting word goals fulfills us. Commercialism in the book market, notably on Amazon.com, proves to us that more words equals more money—which means we are doing better as authors by typing more words. Even grammar tricks us into throwing in an unnecessary “that” or “and” because it is correct to do so.
Human beings are in love with words. We are addicted to language. Just try going without it for twenty-four hours. No speaking, no listening, no writing, texting, or reading. Not even the logo on your coffee cup.
Unless we live in isolation, most of us would find a single day without any exposure to human language impossible. Even in isolation, many of our brains (though not all) are wired to think in words. So it seems only natural that we are hooked.
I adore finding tips and ideas for creative writers; be they in the form of a new writing book, an author’s blog, or simply advice from a friend.
If I could give back only one thought in return, whether you’re working on short stories, poems, screenplays, essays, a memoir, your first novel or your fiftieth, this would be it:
We Are All Using Too Many Words.
Ways to Help
By your third or fourth draft, take your manuscript aside for a quiet read. Don’t worry about fixing the grammar. Don’t worry about the jerky plot, or if you still haven’t slipped in a description of a central character who was introduced on page three. Allow yourself to read with an eye toward excess.
Do you need five adverbs on one page, or will a single really punchy one suffice? Better yet, how about none?
Do you need to reiterate that your protagonist has lavender eyes sixty-eight times in your novel, or will one introduction and two or three reminders work?
Without even cutting a scene, you will be amazed how quickly your manuscript loses weight.
Is being grammatically correct making your prose hard to read?
Can you lose a word and maintain clarity and flow without confusing the meaning? For example, if you are finding it necessary to use “that” five times in one paragraph, consider dropping some. Is it “correct”? Possibly not. Does it read clearly and communicate your intended message more fluidly to your reader? Probably.
Is that conversation on page twelve longer than it needs to be?
Unless things like “Good morning!” and “How’s it going?” are shaping who your characters are for your reader, or advancing your story, we don’t need them in dialogue. Instead, consider telling us “They met for coffee” and only start your dialogue once someone is saying something that we need to know.
Does your writing ever stray toward “stage and screen”?
I do this often and have been slapped on the wrist for it by editors. Unless you are writing for the stage or screen, we don’t need every move spelled out.
Annabelle rolled onto her right side, gasping when she saw the time on the digital clock. She threw back the sheet, scrambled from bed, and dashed into the bathroom, where she slammed the door and turned on the shower.
Annabelle rolled over and gasped at sight of the digital clock. She sprang from bed and dashed into the bathroom.
Are you telling something that you have already implied?
Mark had been bringing Annabelle roses each Tuesday morning for the past year. And, each Tuesday morning, Annabelle was up with the sparrows, glancing out the window as she dressed and fixed her hair. She would race to the front door with her heart in her throat the moment she saw Mark turn into the driveway. She couldn’t wait for Mark to bring those flowers every Tuesday.
Apparently, the impulse to add that last sentence is a powerful force.
This one is a tragedy for more than just too many words. Throwing in that last line tells your readers that you don’t suppose them to be a particularly bright bunch, so you’re adding that little cherry on top to make sure they understand the situation. When, as a matter of fact, most readers of both fiction and nonfiction are so intelligent they will soon become fed up with endless repetitions of situations like the one above and find another book to read.
Show it. Imply it. Show it more. Then also spell it out end the scene.
If you are a creative writer of any kind who is looking to trim flab from your manuscript, you can do no better than looking to poetry for inspiration in clean wordage. I recommend Billy Collins and Shel Silverstein, but many poets have a deep understanding of brevity which many other authors lack.
Also, if you are a novelist, try reading a couple of screenplays. Note how much is shown to the reader while the words remain so sparse we see mostly white space.
“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
So go through that draft. Cut words like “very”, “suddenly”, “overall”, “quite”, and “actually”. If it ends with an “ly” consider a quick death. If it’s multiple words that could be one (example: “in regard to” can be “about”), make the cut.
No need to fret over too many words in your first draft. That’s what first drafts are for—getting all those words down. But, in revisions, give yourself merit badges not for how many words you write, but for how many you can cut.