Cutting Words Without Value

I have to admit that self-restraint around food isn’t one of my strengths. I like food a little too much. I’m working on down-sizing my appetite… and then hopefully my wardrobe.

One of the things I use to say when younger was about “unwanted calories”. If you aren’t going to enjoy eating something (e.g. the flavourless crusts on a pizza) then its “unwanted calories”. Why consume calories when it’s surplus to need and not going to be enjoyable either? It’s smarter on so many levels just to bin it.

There are certain words that have no value, just like unwanted calories. They add nothing to the story and so should be deleted.

One of the tasks I’ve done recently is to review every use of the word ‘that’. It is most often a filler word whose presence can be removed without altering the meaning of the sentence at all. I know I use it unconsciously. When I did my word frequency analysis I had a massive 735 ‘that’ uses.

A particularly bad example of THAT shame

My ‘that’ hunt eradicated it down to just 149 instances. A good hunt, indeed.

Sentence Length

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. 

When I’m reading with a critical eye the only thing I’ve been looking for in sentence structure is crazy-long sentences. That’s all I knew to look for, until now. 

Five Word Sentence Quote by Gary Provost
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

The Value of an Editor

One of my key alpha readers is author Shari Risoff who is also an internet buddy. Because of our friendship, and the writers’ need for ongoing encouragement, she gets the privilege and/or horror of seeing my tentative drafts. In one of my first scenes she picked up on something, highlighting a single word to draw it to my attention:

The meeting place had been chosen carefully: an abandoned rat-infested industrial area. There were a warren of access lanes but only one main road in and out, both ends now blocked by police.

I couldn’t see the problem; to me it was correct as far as I knew, but she noted that were is plural while warren is singular.

Definition of warren:

  1. network of interconnecting rabbit burrows.
  2. a densely populated or labyrinthine building or district.

Given that the first definition of warren refers to multiples itself, I still wasn’t entirely sure. So I asked friend, award winning poet, master wordsmith and quintessential nice-guy, Thom Sullivan. He not only confirmed the error Shari had spotted but also tinkered skilfully.

The meeting place had been carefully chosen: an abandoned rat-infested industrial area. It was a warren of access lanes with only one main road in and out – and both ends now blocked by police.

As he explained most graciously,

With “chosen carefully” the reader “sees” the action (the choosing) then has to impute back the quality of it being done with care. By reversing it, the adverb tells them in advance to “see” whatever action comes next as being done with care – so the reader sees the whole image immediately.

It was interesting for me, (a complete non-poet) to see how a poet is so exacting and  precise in word choice and placement. It definitely enhances the writing, but is something that would be near-impossible on a novel length piece of text.

The best I can hope for is to be mindful of these things in the future. I am most grateful to both Shari and Thom for their help.