Authors who write tight are more likely to get the attention of publishers than ones with exaggerative, overly-complicated, repetitive writing (see what we did there?!). Tightly written books are page-turners; their stories are clear and engaging. There is far less fluff, which is good because readers often skim over that to get to the good stuff anyway.
When your editor writes on your 125,000-word manuscript, “I love your manuscript. Now cut 25,000 words,” they are saying you need to “tighten your writing.” You need to prune the things that don’t add value.
Cutting so many words may sound like a death sentence for your story, but it’s quite the opposite. Tightening up your writing means pruning meaningless clutter that stands between your message and your reader.
“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” – Stephen King
Words straight out of a thesaurus and paragraphs that take the scenic route to the point do not always make the author appear more intelligent. In fact, the opposite is often true (with the exception of certain textbooks, technical writing pieces, and some marketing copy where repetition may increase conversions).
Copywriting and marketing expert, Roy Furr explains, “Flowery prose and clever turns of phrase are appropriate at times. But, in general, to write tight, you probably have to kill your darlings.”
Voice and style are important, but Furr warns that the trouble is when writing draws more attention to itself than to the story. He says, “That’s when readers think the author is showing off.”
“Good writing is impressive. Great writing is invisible.” – Roy Furr
It’s not always about using fewer words. It’s about using the right ones.
To tighten up your writing, go through your work to remove or revise vague, meaningless pronouns that weaken your message (it was, there is), invisible, unnecessary words (that), weak words (just), mushy modifiers (very, nearly, quite, almost, sort of, rather), and empty words that often precede a verb (he began to edit his work could be he edited his work).
Here’s an example of tightening and revising writing, using a paragraph taken from a book I’m currently editing.
ORIGINAL: When she learned about my cancer diagnosis, she was very devastated. I was in Canada at the time, and she began to grow restless with worry. I have no doubt that she would have been there for me if she could. Rather, despite the distance, she comforted me with her love and prayers during our phone calls.
TIGHTER: She was devastated by my cancer diagnosis. I know she would have come to my side if we weren’t oceans apart. Each time I called her from Canada, I could tell she was restless with worry, yet she still comforted me with her love and prayers.
Here’s another sample from a different book undergoing editing.
ORIGINAL: I am not sure how much time passed before I realized that Dr. Jim was talking to me again. His words came through in bits and pieces, broken, like a poor radio connection. My ears were muffled with the echo of my pounding heartbeat. Boom! Swoosh! I wondered if this would be the moment I finally cracked. Right there, on a shrink’s couch. Seemed fitting after being treated as if I were crazy for the better part of the last thirty years.
TIGHTER: I don’t know how long it was before I realized Dr. Jim was talking to me again. His words came through in broken bits and pieces, like a poor radio connection, filtered through the pounding of my heart. Boom! Boom! Boom! I wondered if I would finally crack, right there on my shrink’s couch. Fitting. I had been treated as if I were crazy for years.
Which versions do you like better? The original or the tightened up versions? Did you find that the author’s story was diminished in the tighter version? What would you do differently? Or would you tighten them up even further? We would love to get your take on tight writing and whether it’s something you’ll keep in mind for future edits.