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Dec 29, 2011

One Ridiculously Easy Way To Improve Your Manuscript

So you want your writing not to suck. There's a ridiculously effective way to improve it. It's easy--once you know how:

Put your manuscript on a diet!

I have a guest post from writing coach extraordinaire, Rayne Hall, with some tips.

Does your writing style have bulges and saggy bits? Dr Rayne's Word Loss Diet helps you to trim, slim, tighten and tone your manuscript. 

In thirty years as an editor, I've found the same fatty words bloat the style of many authors.

Here is a notorius, fattening, calorie-rich word: 'could'.  If you cut it from your diet your writing style will be come sharper and tighter.

Beginner writers are prone to overusing it. Experienced authors  may use it a lot in their drafts, but edit it out in the final version.

Instead of telling us that the heroine could see, could hear, could smell or could feel something, let her see, hear, smell, taste, feel it. Simply cut the word 'could'.

'Could see' becomes 'saw', 'Could hear' becomes 'heard', 'could smell' becomes 'smelled', ' could taste' becomes 'tasted', 'could feel' becomes 'felt'.

Better still: cut 'see/hear/smell/taste/feel' as well.  If you have established the point of view of your story, you don't need to say that your PoV hears the sounds, smells the smells and sees the visions.

Obese version (before diet)
He could hear footsteps clanking down the stairs.
Overweight version (after mild diet)
He heard footsteps clanking down the stairs.
Slim version (after strict diet)
Footsteps clanked down the stairs.

Obese version (before diet)
She could see his lips beginning to twitch.
Overweight version (after mild diet)
She saw his lips beginning to twitch.
Slim version (after strict diet)
His lips twitched.

Obese version (before diet)
She could feel her cheeks firing.
Overweight version (after mild diet)
She felt her cheeks firing.
Slim version (after strict diet)
Her cheeks fired.

Obese version (before diet)
She could sense that something was wrong.
Overweight version (after mild diet)
She sensed that something was wrong.
Slim version (after strict diet)
Something was wrong.

Obese version (before diet)
He could understand that it was time to leave.
Overweight version (after mild diet)
He understood it was time to leave.
Slim version (after strict diet)
It was time to leave.

Obese version (before diet)
He could feel the air chill.
Overweight version (after mild diet)
He felt the air chill.
Slim version (after strict diet)
The air chilled.

Use your wordprocessor's Find&Replace tool to count how many times you've used 'could', and cut most of them.

I'd love to hear from you. When you've checked your WiP for 'could', post a comment to tell me how many you've found, and whether you're going to cut some of them.

What other 'wordy words' do you think writers can cut from from their word diet?

If you have questions about writing style, or need advice on  how to tighten your writing, please ask. I'll be around for a week, and I enjoy answering questions.

If your writing style tends towards wordy waffling, if your critique partners urge you to tighten, and if editorial rejections point out dragging pace, this class may be the answer. It's perfect for toning your manuscript before submitting to editors and agents, or for whipping it into shape before indie publishing.

This is an interactive class with twelve lessons and twelve assignments, for writers who have a full or partial manuscript in need of professional polish. At the end of the class, you may submit a scene for individual critiques.

Dr Rayne's Word-Loss Diet is much more fun than depriving yourself of food, and you'll see real results fast.

Deadline: December 29, 2011. Fee: $25

Rayne Hall is the author of a deliciously dark fantasy about a man trying to protect a kingdom and protect a woman...from himself. You can buy it here.


Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Wow! In a 38K WIP, I found 186 instances of "could." Fortunately, most of them seem to be used to establish a subjunctive mood instead of the way you've described here. I may need to cut some of those in the final draft, though.

amberargyle said...

Ugh. Thanks for the reminder. *off to edit*

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Sandra,
Keep the necessary ones and kill the rest. :-)

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Amber,
Have fun with the edit. Will you tell us how many 'could' you could cut?

Adam J Nicolai said...

I did a check on my novel, and it found seven instances of "could see" or "could hear" - but four of those were in dialog, so I'm feeling pretty good! I love the tip. It was one thing I watched for in both my first draft and revision process.

I've got another one, that I think beginning authors fall into quite often (I know I used to): "for a moment"

"For a moment, he looked out at the lake," as opposed to "He chewed it over, staring at the lake." Another good way to fill an empty "moment" but still convey that it's passing is by mentioning the surroundings.

"Blah," she said.
For a moment, they were both silent.
"Blah," her husband replied.


"Blah," she said.
Rain tapped against the window; upstairs, the roof was creaking beneath the wind.
"Blah," her husband replied.

This one can be hard to search for, though - it'll sneak by as "for just a moment" or "for a brief moment". But even a straight search of "for a moment" will reveal if you've got this problem. In my first novel (currently trunked) I had to whittle down from 157 instances of this phrase to about 12. In the novel I'm selling right now, I made a conscious decision to allow myself exactly one use of the phrase, and that was an indulgence.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Adam,

I agree. In dialogue, most of the guidelines for writing style don't apply, and you can include phrases you wouldn't otherwise. On the other hand, dialogue needs to be even tighter than the narrative, because tight dialogue sounds more 'real'. So it's a matter of deciding each individual instance.

Your habitual overuse of 'for a moment' is interesting. Most writers have certain phrases they use all the time. It's good that you're aware of yours, and can eliminate it. You may even want to search the word 'moment', because it may have crept into your manuscript wearing different cloaks: a moment later, the next moment, after a moment, without a moment's hesitation....

Sometimes, you can replace 'moment' with a synonym. For an instant, a heartbeat later...

This won't solve the problem, but it adds variety and makes the repetition less obvious.

I like your examples for replacing 'for a moment' sentences with something different.

I agree absolutely that the sentence 'For a moment, they were both silent' is dull and adds almost zero comment, while the description of the sounds of rain is superb.

A sentence about a background sound implies silence. It also builds atmosphere, anchors the scene in the setting, enchances the narrative voice, and creates tension, excitement and suspense.
Background sounds are wonderful tools for a writer, because they serve so many functions at once.

It's great that you were able to whittle down 157 instances to 12 - and at the same time, probably cured (or at least curbed) your habit.

I've had to cure 'face', 'hand' and 'but' and 'velvet' habits. I wonder what new habits have taken their place. :-D