We all have tics in our writing that show up as we revise our manuscripts. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said we shouldn’t use, “all hell broke loose,” and “suddenly.” I actually don’t see a problem with suddenly, but because Elmore Leonard didn’t like it, I’m too chicken to use it. I also think adverbs get a bad rap, though I use them sparingly.
Here are some more things that get repeated in manuscripts you should consider leaving out for a faster, easier and clearer read.
1. When you can say it in fewer words, do so. (General guideline. No, this doesn’t mean all novels should be reduced to their three-paragraph summaries. Yes, we’d all be better read, but it’s about the journey.)
2. When you can use a simpler word instead of an unfamiliar one, consider that. I use some Latin and unusual words in This Plague of Days, but all is explained and it all has a point.
3. The house across the street or right across the street? In Nova Scotia, we said “right across” often, which technically connotes “directly,” or “nearest.” But across the street will usually do. “Right over there,” becomes “Over there.” Nothing lost.
4. Eliminate gerunds where possible. This often accompanies a manuscript packed with “was.” “He was working on the plan”? Will “He worked on the plan,” serve your purpose with a more direct and muscular verb?
5. Felt. He felt this. He felt that. I’m not saying eliminate it completely. But showing is generally better than telling (though not always) and doing is better than feeling (often.) Feeling is passive. Demonstrate how he feels that his wife walked out and took the beloved dog he brought into the marriage.
6. Up and down. I go through my manuscripts looking for “up” because that’s my tic. He stood up? He stood is the same. And “she sat down in the purple chair”? “She sat in the purple chair,” communicates the same thought, right?
7. Began. “He began to think about…” How about, “He thought about…”? Once you start thinking, you’re already into it, right?
8. Then. “She then lit the match. Then she lit the fuse and then it began to burn.” Things happen in sequence in the order you
put it down write. Then is often unnecessary.
9. And at the beginning of the sentence. It’s not that it’s wrong. Some of my old-school English teachers went hardcore on this point. It’s when it’s used too often, it becomes a placeholder that delays the action by three little letters. It’s often unnecessary.
10. So at the beginning of a sentence. It’s not wrong, but it’s a common tic. It’s often the writing equivalent of “um” in public speaking. “So, how are you doing?” versus, “How are you doing?” This can be a stylistic choice. In dialogue, maybe it’s a subtle cue to the reader that the speaker is attempting to appear casual or isn’t sure what to say.
Look for opportunities to vary sentence length. It makes for an easier read. Run-on sentences intimidate, confuse and frustrate readers.
~ Robert Chazz Chute is revising Season 3 of This Plague of Days. Season 3, and This Plague of Days, The Complete Series is scheduled for release June 15th, 2014.