Saturday, January 17, 2009
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
One of the most common guidelines every writer encounters is that of the maximum word count. Editors and publishers depend upon writers to stay within the word count limitations for two reasons: 1) They need to be able to plan the layout and length of their publication; and 2) The actual word count affects the cost of production. As someone who tends to “write long,” I find that I often exceed the maximum word count guidelines, thus forcing me to prune my prose to make things fit. Cutting down one’s perfect prose can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be painful if you follow some easy steps. Let’s look at them.
Start Cold. It is always easier to edit your writing if you set it aside for a few days or even a few weeks. If you’re working against a deadline, it may not be possible to set your writing aside for a length of time. However, if you can step away from the work for even one day, it will be much easier to cut it.
Big Stuff First. Whenever you exceed a word count, the first things to cut are the unnecessary chapters, scenes, or paragraphs. How do you identify what is unnecessary? Ask yourself some questions: Does the chapter advance the plot or add to the tension? Does the scene move the story forward and/or provide insight into your characters? In nonfiction, does the information give the reader a new or deeper understanding of the subject? For a short story, ask yourself if the scene is relevant to the central crisis. Does the scene complicate the crisis or provide a key to the resolution? Once you remove the large chunks of unnecessary prose, you may discover that you’ve met the word count.
Repetition. When I write nonfiction, I have a bad habit of repeating my main points. Did you understand that? I sometimes repeat examples and information—just in case my readers didn’t grasp them the first time. ☺ If you have two anecdotes for an article that are similar, drop one of them. In fiction, I think of this repetition as “copycat scenes.” For example, in my novel I have my main character coming upon a massive gathering of people in a dry wash. Later, I describe what he sees when he is sitting on a rock above this wash and watching the crowd below. A kind beta reader pointed out to me that the second scene was a copycat version of the first. Since the copycat was actually more vivid than the original, I dropped the first scene.
Tangents. If you are writing an article about how to charge your cell phone with the new Golden Widget, it may be very tempting to include the anecdote of how the Egyptians first used a modified version of the Golden Widget to purify their water in the Valley of the Kings. The only problem with this is that the history of the Golden Widget has absolutely nothing to do with its use of charging modern-day cell phones. Save that information for another article. A similar problem occurs in fiction. Writers of historical fiction are often tempted to show off their research by throwing in expository information about the place and time. Expository writing almost always slows down the pace in fiction and should be cut. When the writer falls in love with his prose, he also risks going off onto a tangent. That description of the sunrise may be the best thing you ever wrote, but if it has no significance to your character or to the story, it may be good enough just to say: “The next morning…”
Dead Prose. These are the words in your manuscript that do nothing. They can take the form of clichés, favorite phrases, qualifiers, or filler words. Clichés are overly-used phrases that have lost their meaning: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Favorite phrases are word combinations that the author adores and uses repeatedly. Look for the phrases that you fall back on to create transitions in your work, as this is the most likely place to find dead prose. Common qualifier words include seemed, as if, appeared, like, etc. Filler words are those excess words used to describe simple actions. Some examples: She stood up. versus She stood. He sat down in the chair. versus He sat. Unless your character has been directed to sit elsewhere—on a couch or on the floor—most readers will assume he sat in the chair.
Doubles. To find the “doubles,” look for the pairs of adjectives that essentially say the same thing: “gentle, loving touch.” Doubles also occur when you use a weak verb propped up by an adverb. Rather than tell us that he ran quickly, choose a precise verb—dashed, jogged, scampered, sprinted, scurried, galloped—that doesn’t require an adverb modifier.
May all of your pruning be painless, and may all of your prose be tight. Happy writing!
Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning author whose fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry has been published in magazines, newspapers (including The Arizona Republic and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), and anthologies. In 2002, Ms. Gassman was the recipient of an Encouragement Award in Creative Writing from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and in the 2005 Preditors & Editors Reader’s poll her story, '”Healing Arts,'” was ranked among the Top 10 in the nonfiction category. She also teaches writing classes and conducts workshops in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Please visit her Web site at: