Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about Sentence, Paragraph, Chapter, and Story Length. This week, we’ll discuss Ten Steps to Tightening.
One of the important steps in the revision process is tightening. This is a multi-level, multi-step process, but oh so important to make your writing sparkle. This task is a bit tedious, so I normally save it for the end, just before sending it to betas.
1. Cut unnecessary words!
- Eliminate as many of these as possible: very, really, just, back, up, quite, rather, start, begin
- Eliminate “that” (but be careful with “that”––sometimes “that” makes a sentence much more readable). That phrases can be tightened. Example: The house that sat up on the big hill… becomes… The house up on the big hill…
- Eliminate “of” when it follows all, off, outside
- Check “up” and “down” when it follows a verb. Chances are you don’t need it. Example: Sat down at the table. Stood up.
- “So” and “such” are unnecessary: so tired, so lovely, such injustice, such beauty
- Look at “but“. Sometime it’s a good conjunction and sometimes you can use it to start a sentence as an emphasis word. Often you can cut the “but” and write two separate, more powerful sentences. If you use “but” to start sentences often, it loses its punch.
To eliminate these unnecessary words, in your Word document, type the word in the Find function. Go through the entire document and delete as many as possible. Then move on to the next word.
I’ve found that after going through the exercise of doing this on several manuscripts, I’ve trained myself to use these words less often in more recent WIPs.
2. Cut unnecessary dialogue tags!
Said, answered, asked…
You can definitely do this, especially if you are paragraphing your dialogue appropriately so that it is clear who is saying what.
“Pass me that tomato,” Dad said as he grabbed the cutting board and a serrated knife.
“Pass me that tomato.” Dad grabbed the cutting board and a serrated knife.
3. Cut filtering verbs!
These include overused seeing verbs and thinking verbs: heard, saw, felt, knew, imagined, wondered, pondered, thought, understood, realized
For the sensing verbs, the sentence is normally stronger without the filter. Example: She heard the car door slam against the garage wall. Replace with: The car door slammed against the garage wall.
For the thinking verbs, just deliver the information or ask the question directly.
She thought about all the people like her who had failed to finish college.
So many others like her had failed to finish college.
She wondered why she’d been successful when so many others had failed.
Why had she been successful when so many others had failed?
4. Question your adjectives!
I’m not bashing adjectives here. They can stir emotions and visual images that are comforting and make the story come to life. But sometimes ,the description is excessive and takes you right out of the story.
Do you really need to say a “bright, warm, cloudless, sunshiny day”? I think not. Think about how your character would describe it and keep it simple.
5. Also question your adverbs!
We already got rid of “really” and “very”, but carefully scrutinize your -ly words to make sure they add value to each sentence. Sometimes an adverb is just a signal that you need a more precise verb and. Example:
She spread butter thickly on the toast and quickly put it in her mouth on the way out the door.
She loaded the toast with butter and stuffed it in her mouth on the way out the door.
6. Eliminate redundancies!
She nodded her head and shrugged her shoulders.
This can be simply be written as: She nodded and shrugged.
Emily began eating her soggy bagel. Three boys ran into the cafeteria and started yelling, “Everyone, go outside. Now!”
“Began” and “started” are redundant. Skip them both.
Emily ate her soggy bagel. Three boys ran into cafeteria yelling, “Everyone, go outside. Now!”
7. Check for “was”!
A high density of “was” in your writing normally signals that your sentence structure doesn’t have much flavor and is likely very passive. Often this means you aren’t using active verbs. Active verbs reduce wordiness and pulls your reader in.
I was envious of your grade on that last test.
I envy your grade on that last test.
At the party, she was dressed like a fairy and had wings and a wand.
She wore fairy wings to the party and carried a wand.
We were at the party, but there were so many people we had to leave early.
We left the over-crowded party early.
8. Check your fall back words! These are your words that you tend to overuse, often when you’re trying to convey what your character is feeling.
Only you know what these are for you. Mine are breathed, shrugged, nodded, heart raced…
Seeing the same reactions repeated over and over will make your story flat. Mix it up by finding new ways to express that your character feels relieved, frustrated, excited, or scared. One of the best resources that I’ve found for this is the Emotional Thesaurus. It’s filled with thousands of different emotional responses that will help set your story apart.
9. Check for “stuff” and “things” and make them specific!
There was so much stuff swirling in her head that she couldn’t think of the answers to the questions on the test.
The history facts swirled in her head, making it impossible to answer the test questions.
10. Eliminate unnecessary phrases!
I notice these when I look for “that” in my manuscript. Sometimes the that seems necessary in the sentence, but really you just need to get rid of the phrase accompanying it.
Maria became furious as Allison kept bringing up examples that had nothing to do with the topic.
Maria became furious as Allison kept bringing up unrelated examples.
We’d love to hear your suggestions for tightening in the comments! Come back next week to read our discussion about Using All Five Senses.
MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.