5. Give Yourself a Break
You’re awesome. You have awesome ideas. This is guaranteed to be true.
Thing is, sometimes our awesome ideas get onto the page in a format where we think it’s good, but that’s because we can read our own intentions rather than what we actually wrote.
To have a better chance at catching little mistakes, give yourself a break – two weeks is ok, a month is about perfect – and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. It’s amazing how many sentences you’ll have forgotten about, and this will help you read reality.
Also, it feels really good to read something you wrote and enjoy it.
4. Look for Pretentious Words
I’m not saying to get rid of all big words. The words I’m talking about are the pretentious kind, those big words that don’t need to be big for any reason other than ego stroking.
Multi-syllable, uncommon words can cause many readers to stumble. Even you, with your writer’s vocabulary, sometimes come across words you don’t know. What happens when you’re reading in a place without a computer or dictionary (or, more common, when you just don’t feel like looking it up)? You skip that sentence and hope it didn’t matter. Words that could cause your readers to stumble may draw them out of the experience and weaken the overall effect of a passage.
This doesn’t always happen with big or archaic words, too. You can do it with something ordinary. For instance, look at this line from my favorite whipping boy, Eragon:
He tried to pull away, but her hand was like an iron talon around his ankle – he could not break her tenacious hold.
Besides the fact that the sentence isn’t even necessary in the passage it appears, focus on the phrase “like an iron talon.” Not only does it bring up no immediate images – unless you’re a DOTA player – and thus mean nothing, it’s full of harsh words that convey melodramatic concepts. It’s over the top despite only including well-known words. Look for things meant to make you look powerful or smart with no other purpose and give them the ax.
3. Search for Word Overusage
All of us have those little words we like to pepper into our writing but don’t realize it. I use “know” far too often. My boss FREAKING BETTER STOP overusing “utilize.” Sometimes, you can find words you overuse with a Word Frequency Counter.
I searched around and came upon this word frequency counter for browsers. The reason I like it is because I don’t have to use a certain program (like MS Word) and because, with a .org domain name, I feel like it’s not quite as suspicious as some of the other sites I saw out there.
But a word frequency counter doesn’t always cut it – there’s character limits on those apps, and at a point you’ll have such a long list of words that you won’t have a good idea of what’s too much or not enough. If you want to have a better idea of which words you overuse, get a beta reader.
2. Gnaw Away At Those Adverbs
I’m not one of those people who want to get rid of adverbs. I think, when used judiciously, adverbs can add to a sentence. However, they can also serve as filler. Words such as “quickly,” “suddenly,” or “immediately” tend to add very little to a sentence.
For instance: did you notice I used the word “very” in that last sentence? If I deleted it, the sentence’s meaning wouldn’t change. The impact wouldn’t change. All “very” accomplished was make it longer. If the word doesn’t add to the sentence or passage, why keep it? Why waste your reader’s time?
Rather than include unhelpful words, zoom in on your adverbs and delete them. Re-read the sentence, then decide if the adverb added enough to keep it.
1. Get Rid of Half-Hearted Verbs and Filler Words
This is the one I need to focus on.
Verbs are so various, rich, and distinct, that it’s a shame to use ‘is’ or ‘has’ when something better (but not pretentious!) could be used. Better verbs can reduce the use of adverbs or helping verbs. Helping verbs may also be a sign of passive voice which, while useful, reduces impact of sentences.
Several filler words clutter first-drafts. In most cases where “she started to” or “he began to,” you can get rid of those halfway verbs and just focus on the meatier verb. “That” is the plague of concise writing; when I edited one of my novels, I found over 500 instances of “that” which could be slashed from the pages. That’s 500 words which ended up going to good use as part of a new chapter exploring character growth.
Here’s a short list of words to keep an eye out for:
- The helping verbs
- Uh, um, or other mumbling words
- For the love of all that is holy, just say “use,” not “utilize”
Other Places Full of Neat Hints
Looking for more things to consider as you write? Perhaps just want to listen to someone with more authority than me? Then enjoy these links. I’ve noticed that a lot of the same advice floats around, so definitely check out how many hints are shared between them!
Necessary Fiction’s “A Month of Revision” (Strongly recommended – lots of tips for novel writers)
The above-mentioned “Word Frequency Counter” app
My own “Think Before You Thesaurus”
Do you have any more hints or tips that I’ve missed? Something you’d like to focus in on? Leave it in the comments! Or, better yet, feel free to talk about it in your own response to Witty Nib Writing Club’s first prompt!