So you want to write beautiful, captivating prose. How do you do that? One of the best ways is to take out your red pencil and start cutting. Writing that keeps a reader turning the pages, writing that flows beautifully is above all concise. Here are a few areas I’ve found to trim, and it never fails that when I do, it makes the writing more powerful.
Cut adjectives and adverbs. As Stephen King famously said, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” When you cut adjectives and adverbs, you’ll be forced to choose stronger nouns and verbs. Instead of saying running quickly, you’ll say sprinting. Instead of saying small, stone house, you’ll say cottage. A page without adjectives and adverbs will be a page of vivid and energetic prose.
Cut repetition. We want our readers to get what we’re trying to say. So we hint at things like character or backstory in myriad ways – dialogue, action, inner dialogue, action, the perceptions of other characters, and so on. This bogs you down. Readers are generally an intelligent group. You can trust them to get it the first time.
Cut rambling dialogue. In real life, we may make half a dozen points before we’re done speaking, but that kind of dialogue isn’t going to sing on the page. If a character says more than a couple of sentences, take another look and determine 1) whether something essential is being said and 2) if it’s going to hold your reader’s attention. James Scott Bell reminds us that dialogue is not people talking. It’s people using words to reach a goal. It’s conflict, no matter how subtle. Most of the rest is just chaff and will lose your reader.
Cut physical cues. The strongest cues to what a character is feeling is their action and dialogue. An occasional hammering heart or trembling hand is okay, but if you’re putting a lot of them in, you might need to go back and make sure your action and dialogue is strong enough. If it is, your reader will have no doubt how your character feels, what she’s not saying and everything else you want him to know.
Cut crying scenes. My agent once told me that you get one cry per book. Crying is a passive response and it’s a lazy way to show emotion. If your character is upset, give them some spunk and have them do something interesting with that emotion. My experience with cutting tears has been that the revised scene is always more profound, because I’ve been forced to dig deeper.
Cut telling prose. That is, let the reader figure some things out on their own. You don’t have to explain why your character is hiding the letter or that he doesn’t trust his supposed best friend. If you’ve left enough clues, the reader will get mentally involved as they try to work it out and they’ll feel more intelligent for having caught on. And you haven’t weighed down your writing with explanations.
Cut extraneous scenes. When you’re done with your first draft, go back through and find any scenes that don’t move the story forward. There will inevitably be one or two of them. It’s hard to do. You slaved over that scene. You loved it. But if it’s not essential to the story, it’s tangling your writing up and slowing it down.
Cutting makes for lighter, flowing prose. But it has another purpose. Getting rid of something usually ensures that you need to make whatever is left is strong enough to stand on its own, which leaves you with richer writing. What have you cut that made your writing stronger?
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