This is the third and final post in my series of tips on how to write lean and mean, and how to reduce word counts in our novels. You can read the first post here and the second post here.
Lean writing is a skill that develops with practice. It is writing that is easy to read and does not draw attention to itself. So how do we reduce the wordiness of our books to achieve lean writing? Here are my final three tips to help you revise your work leaner.
7. He Said / She Said
Dialogue tags TELL us who is speaking, while action tags SHOW us who is speaking. Wherever possible, use action tags rather than dialogue tags, unless it really is too complicated for the reader to follow who is speaking from the content or actions, or because there are simply too many characters in the conversation to keep it straight.
Mary flopped down on the sofa beside Jane. “Where were you last night?” she asked. “You missed a great party.”
“Nowhere. I stayed home,” Jane said. She kept her head down, hoping her friend wouldn’t spot the telltale blush creeping up her cheeks.
Mary flopped down on the sofa beside Jane. “Where were you last night? You missed a great party.”
“Nowhere. I stayed home.” Jane kept her head down, hoping her friend wouldn’t spot the telltale blush creeping up her cheeks.
Action tags add more value, since they show us what the character is thinking and feeling, rather than just telling us who is speaking – which is often obvious to the reader anyway!
Added bonus: you cut out all those irrelevant 'he said / she said' words.
While adverbs (words which describe the action) are sometimes necessary, using too many of them is a sign of weak writing. When you are revising your own work, go through your sentences and diligently search out every -ly word. Wherever possible, look for a stronger action verb to replace the adverb. But don't go overboard - sometimes adverbs do serve a purpose.
Examples of -ly adverbs:
She ran quickly.
"Wanna bet?" he said jokingly.
She walked slowly through the market.
He looked quickly at her.
She tried desperately to lift the heavy object.
He spoke quietly.
Now written with stronger verbs:
"Wanna bet?" he joked.
She wandered through the market.
He glanced at her.
She struggled to lift the heavy object.
9. Was / That
A rule often taught to newbie writers is: avoid these words at all costs. The problem is, that sometimes you do need to use was / had / that. What the advice to newbie writers should be: avoid these words when they are unnecessary. Which means you need to know when they are or aren't necessary, and you need to exercise a little judgment!
Unnecessary usage: Which means that you need to exercise judgment.
Better: Which means you need to exercise judgment.
Unnecessary usage: He hadn't lost his humility now that he was famous.
Better: He hadn't lost his humility now he was famous.
Unnecessary usage: "I didn't know that he'd left."
Better: "I didn't know he'd left."
Necessary usage: She wished away the sunglasses that concealed his eyes.
Unnecessary usage: I looked at her. She was holding the water jug like a shield.
Better: I looked at her. She held the water jug like a shield.
Unnecessary usage: She was reaching for the book on the shelf.
Better: She reached for the book on the shelf.
Necessary usage: He was already running when he heard the gun shot.
(Doesn't it sound odd to say ‘He already ran when he heard the gun shot’?)
Little tip: Look for '-ing' words as these are a clue that you might have used more words than necessary.
As with all writing, letting a few adverbs, directional words, or dialogue tags slip through isn't going to make your writing wordy, or make it appear weak. But reducing the number of instances will definitely strengthen your writing, and make it flow more easily - and has the added benefit of keeping your word counts down if, like me, you need to reduce your words to a specific overall target.
Can you think of any other ways to reduce word counts, and make our writing less flabby?