You probably won't be surprised to learn I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. I also read a lot of published work. Are there some glaring differences between the two? You betcha. The fact is most beginning writers write too much. That's okay for the first draft but when it comes to editing, you need to give that delete key a thorough work out! Good writing is about pacing. It's about taking the reader on a journey and keeping in step with them along the way. If you get the pacing wrong, the reader will stumble and begin to lose interest because it will seem you are more interested in writing the words than telling the story or relaying the information.
Here are some tips on how to cut down on unnecessary verbiage!
The Art of Description
With the advent of global communication and visual media, we all know what most things and even most places look like. It's no longer necessary to spend more than a couple of sentences establishing what things are, where scenes are set and what the weather is like, if that's important for mood.
Many readers nowadays will actually skip descriptive passages because they find them dull and interrupt the flow of the text. So don't beat yourself up over getting all the details across - that's what the reader's imagination is for!
Sometimes we write scenes etc., we're not sure the reader will understand - so we add extra words to explain ourselves, resulting in more confusion than clarity. For instance, look at this:
"With the divorce weighing on his mind, and his fears about losing his job, John was having difficulty deciding what to do with himself. Could he face going out, knowing that Pete would probably spend the evening ribbing him over his his inability to get along with his boss and his problems with his estranged wife?"
Clearly this is clumsy and confusing to read. Much better to remove the qualifiers and simplify:
"The divorce was on his mind. Did he want to go out? John wasn't sure. Pete would probably just want to rib him."
In the above version, even though the propositions are only loosely defined - the reader still gets it. You don't always need to explain every little nuance to get a point across.
Quite the opposite in fact.
Room to Breathe?
When you write you make a contract with your reader - whom you must regard as your equal. Not someone who is slow to understand and needs to be carefully led, shown everything and generally talked down to.
It's perfectly okay to leave out obvious - and therefore redundant - details. You don't always have to explain exactly who said what, what happened where, why and for how long.
New writers clog up their stories with unnecessary backstory, linking scenes, plot justifications and long complicated explanations of things the reader already regards as clear.
If you write with honesty and intelligence, your reader knows what and who you mean - when you over explain, you insult the reader. Don't do it.
Quite often writing suffers because the reader doesn't know where you're going. They wonder why you're focussing on certain characters and details - especially when you haven't first hinted at the 'point' of your story.
When you open a piece, you need a big 'sign' that tells the reader you're going THIS WAY - so that the reader knows what to expect along the way. You need to define your objectives - your purpose - in some way on the first page.
For instance, if you're writing a murder mystery, don't spend the first chapter following the protagonist around doing her laundry. Get on with the story and as soon as you can, show us the body!
Play By The Rules
Especially in genre fiction, you have to adhere to certain rules, because that's what the reader wants. Horror stories need to be at least a little horrific - right from the start.
Romance requires that you have lovers at odds with each other by page two. Science fiction and Fantasy require the elements of their genres too.
Publishers often say that, though many writers are good, they often write themselves outside of any given genre in their desire to be different or original - thereby, alas, disqualifying themselves from publication!
Of course it's important to be original - but if you can do that within the confines your reader expects, your chances of success skyrocket.
What you're looking for is sharp writing that relays the facts. When you go back and edit for sense, go for simplicity rather than exposition. If you waffle on about the intricacies of conflicting thought processes or meander through long descriptions of the countryside, you lose all sense of tension.
Pick up any popular novel. The best ones have no words that are about writing. They're all about story.
Okay. Speech tags - you know all the 'he said, she cried, they exclaimed blah de blah' - I'll keep this advice simple and precise. Unless you're writing children's fiction, lose them. As many as you can. It's the way of the modern writer.
Use other, more subtle ways of suggesting who is saying what. It's easily done, it just requires a little thought.
You can refer to character's actions just before or after dialogue, or use different styles to suggest different people.
Just as an experiment, try editing out all of the speech tags from your next MS. I think you'll be surprised and... master this technique and readers will love you for it!
Yep - we all know we're not supposed to use them, especially after a speech tag. They are redundant and add nothing to the story. Repeat to yourself three times before bedtime: I will edit out every word that ends in 'ly'!
The general rule, by the way, is that at least 20% of your MS is probably surplus to requirements! And that goes for all of us!
(c) Rob Parnell
Articles on Writing