Tighter writing results in more captivated readers, a plot that moves forward, and characters that jump off the page.
After eight books and thirty years of editing and teaching workshops, author Debbie Burke teaches young writers how to tighten their writing. “It is easy to fall back on filler words that contribute little meaning to a sentence.”
That means cutting the fluff and killing your darlings.*
“In the first draft, write as loose and flabby as you wish,” teaches Debbie. “Then, on the second or third rewrite, run a global search for what I call The Dirty Dozen Junk Words.” Debbie was gracious enough to share her search and destroy methods below, including what she looks to remove and why.
Searching and Destroying “Junk” Words
by Debbie Burke
- It is/was
- There is/was
- Sort of
- Turned to…
- Began to…
Okay, let’s go through the list.
In one of my college writing classes, whenever a student began sentences with “It was” or “There is,” the professor always asked, “What is it? Where is there?” Vague, meaningless pronouns weaken prose.
That is sneaky, invisible, and usually unnecessary. A good test is to read the sentence out loud. If the meaning is clear without that, cut it; if the meaning isn’t clear without that, leave it in.
Just often sounds like a weasely kid’s excuse: “Honest, Mom, I was just borrowing money from your purse.” Sure, you were.
Very, nearly, quite, almost, sort of, rather are all mushy modifiers. Better to choose a strong verb or noun or a precise adjective.
Joe was very tall; or Joe towered over Shaq.
Susan was nearly at the finish line when she tripped; or Susan sprawled on the ground six inches from the finish line.
Albert is quite smart; or Einstein is a genius.
I’m almost ready to go; or I leave in five minutes.
Martin is rather unsure about taking a new job; or Martin is ambivalent about taking a new job.
Dad, I’m sort of pregnant. Enough said.
Emily turned to leave the party; or Emily left the party.
Began to usually precedes a verb: he began to speak; the baby began to cry. Your writing is stronger if you go straight to the verb: he spoke; the baby cried. One exception is if the verb action is interrupted, e.g. he began to run but tripped over the body. (Can you tell I’m a crime writer?)
Don’t cut too much, though. Years ago, I presented this material for a workshop at a conference. As I talked about “began to,” a lady from Alabama raised her hand and said, “We always say ‘fixin’ to‘, like I’m fixin’ to whup Junior upside the head.” That regional expression was a definite keeper!
Debbie Burke is a suspense novelist, award-winning journalist, and blogger at The Kill Zone website. Her thriller series plunges crime-solver Tawny Lindholm into fast-paced, twisty plots with quirky characters and snappy dialogue, set in the rugged scenery of her home state of Montana. Debbie’s great joy is mentoring young writers.
*A piece of advice to prospective authors that they must kill their “darlings”, i.e. suppress overuse of their favorite expressions, tropes, characters, etc. Often attributed to William Faulkner (1897–1962), but already expressed earlier by Arthur Quiller-Couch (murder your darlings); more recently popularized by Stephen King.