Monday, December 9, 2013

Ten Writing Tighteners: Brevity Blunders


Minds are filled with them. They overflow mouths everywhere. Swimming through oceans of consciousness, they zip through the fiber-optic cables connecting us to the world. Hell, they're even converted to ones and zeros, so they float through the air on wireless networks.

On the eighth day, God created words. And they were good.

BUT too much of a good thing is not always a good thing.  

Authors must walk the tight rope stretched between too much and too little. In order to present enthralling prose, they have to balance enough words to tell the story well without drowning their readers.

Concision is an author's friend.

The Ten Writing Tighteners Series was born from my desire to spotlight some of the most common things I mark in manuscripts as I critique for othersalso the items which get pointed out about my own work. Brevity Blunders could encompass several things already discussed in this series. So, previous posts would be a great place to start, especially Filters, Dead-weight Words, Echoes, and Redundancy. Those are great ways to cut unnecessary words from one's prose.

A few things to help ensure a manuscript is walking the line:

No dumping allowed

Ever heard the term 'data dump'? Well, it's what I type in notes next to parts of MSs where the author has unloaded a whole lot of back story, or exposition on one thing or another that really could be skipped, or at minimum sprinkled throughout the story. The narrator doesn't need to tell about the main character where they've been, what they've done, or who they are. It's always better to show these things.

Storytelling shouldn't seem like storytelling

Though the character is telling a tale to the reader, the reader should still feel as though they are in the story. If it feels like they are being told a story, it will drag, making it a chore to read. Any areas of an MS used solely to explain things the author thinks the audience needs to know might fall into this trap. It's best to look objectively at one's writing to make sure everything moves the story along, and very little is added simply as explanation. Again: Sprinkledon't pour.

Sentence length should vary

It is possible to write paragraph length sentences. But it isn't necessary most of the time. A few long sentences here and there are fine. However, if you have several all bunched together it may make the audience feel as though they are wading through molasses. So vary sentence length, just like you vary sentence structure.

Never say in two words what you can say in one

I didn't come up with this adage, but I use it all the time as I make notes for critique partners. My first novel's final word count before edits began in earnest, was a hefty 171k words. Yup, you read that right. It was a wee bit long. Okay, it was a shitload of words and way too long. Now, it sits at a very tidy 70k. Take away from that: I'm a pro at cutting unnecessary words.

As I edit, mine or anyone else's MS, the thing I try to keep in mind as I read each sentence is, "can this be said with less words?" A lot of the time it can.

Instead of:
She moved her head up and down in agreement.

She nodded.

Instead of:
He nodded his head.

He nodded. (after all, what else on our bodies do we usually refer to as nodding? Therefore, 'his head' isn't needed in this sentence.)

Don't give directions

Unless a book is an instruction manual, a travel guide, or an atlas, the audience doesn't need step-by-step directions. They most likely won't take a book on vacation with them to search out the hidden tunnel in the bottom of the cavern behind the railroad shed three miles down the road past the old gas station on the left side of the road after passing the abandoned church. (see what I did there?)

Nor will readers use a novel to learn physics, chemistry, medical procedures, or any other of a million things taught in classrooms around the globe. So, no matter how important it seems to the story, make those as brief as possible. If there is anything in a book which would make a student fall asleep learning it, then, chances are, it will have the same effect on readers when explained in painful detail.

Set the scene, but don't clutter it up

Details are important, but too many details will bog down the prose. Descriptions should be light enough to allow the reader to use their imaginations. If they didn't want to use their imaginations, they'd wait for the movie. It's fine to describe a few things about the setting, but don't go too far, or it becomes boring. Readers just want to get on with the story; action is what draws most audiences. Keeping descriptions brief works just as well, and will help move the story along better.

The same could be said for characters' clothing descriptions. Unless their wardrobe is important to the scene or characterization, minimal is best. Readers have good imaginations, give them a little credit and let them fill in the blanks. They'll enjoy the experience so much more.

How do you avoid brevity blunders? Share in the comments and help your fellow writers out.

A couple of other blogs to supplement this one

Casablanca Authors' Leah Hultenschmidt, Senior Editor, in her 7/12/12 post Toning Up Flabby Writing 

There are also some great hints in a post called Slash and Burn: Cutting Words By Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy) at The Other Side of the Story 5/11/09

I really appreciate you visiting. If you found this post helpful, please share on Facebook and/or tweet about it. There are still two more installments of The Ten Writing Tighteners Series to go. FOLLOW BY EMAIL so you don't miss them. I also invite you to join this site. Thank you for visiting.

Ten Writing Tightener Series includes
1. Filters 10/14/13
2. Dead-weight Words 10/21/13
3. Echoes 10/28/13
4. Sentence Structure Stagnation 11/4/13
5. Redundancy 11/11/13
6. Telling vs. Showing11/18/13
7. Voice Not Character Appropriate 11/25/13
8. Brevity Blunders 12/9/13
9. Head Hopping 12/16/13
10. Underestimating the Reader 12/23/13


  1. So good. And so appropriate. I dusted off an manuscript I'd set aside for a while and noticed it was just short of 100K (sci-fi/FIGHT CAMP) but for me, that's too much. I've been smashing words like a pro-figther using your list of dead weight words as a guide of what can be dumped. Thank you!

    1. Deirdre! So happy to have you pop back in...and COMMENT! Every time I get a comment on my blog I kinda do a little *Snoopy dance*. So happy this series has been helpful, that was my goal from the get-go, so I love to know I'm succeeding! Two more installments will be coming soon. See you then! ;)


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