In this blog series, The Inkwell, award-winning author Vanessa Gebbie shares writing tips and exercises to keep your writing mind in motion during lockdown.
Do those words even go together? If you’d asked me when I just started out, I’d have said no! My word count was hard won. Very little could persuade me to delete them…
However. Now, all these years later (don’t ask!) I revere editing, actively enjoy it, and I know 100% that my work is better each time I take the pruning shears to it.
Q: What if you have to lose 100 words from a 1000 word doc you reckon is pretty tight?
Let’s play with some pages of work you reckon is pretty clean, and try this to sharpen prose:
- Find all instances of ‘that’ in the piece. If its a novel, you may well have hundreds… go through each example, see if you can just take it out?
- Go through carefully and see if there are places where you add info that isn’t needed, because you’ve already given the reader the same info.
- Go through to find all instances of ‘ing’. *Trust me!) A lot can come out, by rejigging the sentence to sound sharper.
- Try saying the same thing in a different order. See what happens.
- Check instances of She thought/he thought. Do you need them at all?
Look, take this simple sentence:
“She thought that Rome was a cool place to be staying.” (11 was)
After stage (1) it sharpens to “She thought Rome was a cool place to be staying.” (10 wds)
But the reader knows Rome is a place, so why say it’s a place?
After stage (2) it sharpens even more to “She thought Rome was cool.” BUT you have to drop ‘to be staying…”
OR: You could decide to do stage (3) before (2) and highlight ‘ing’
“She thought Rome was a cool place to be staying” (10 wds) – can sharpen to “She thought Rome was a cool place to stay.” (9 wds)
Now apply (4)
“She thought Rome was a cool place to stay.” (9 wds)
Could, if you turn it round, become
“She thought it was cool to stay in Rome.” (still 9 wds).
Q: Do you need the ‘was’ at all?
‘She thought it cool to stay in Rome’ (8 wds) sounds different. Q: Is the voice right for the character? It sounds slightly arch to me. See what you think. I decide its wrong for my character and put ‘was’ back in.
Now apply (5) to “She thought it was cool to stay in Rome.” (9 wds)
“It was cool to stay in Rome.” (7 wds) Does it fit the text? I decide it does.
I’ve lost 5 of the original 11 words.
On that basis, it will take a while but my goodness, I’ll have gone through with a toothcomb and sharpened my work amazingly.
Are you thinking ‘Omigaad, what a palaver!!?’
Yes. It is. And, it is soooo worth it. 🙂
PS: PLEASE PLEASE don’t do what I see so often when I’m judging short story competitions. If the word count is 3000, please don’t edit down to 2999 then stop. Whatever you are doing, go through the WHOLE PIECE applying the same care. The work will thank you for it.
Vanessa Gebbie is a novelist, short fiction writer, poet, editor and writing tutor with ten books out there somewhere – including Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt), editions i and ii, for which she was commissioning and contributing editor. She has taught for The Arvon Foundation, The Arts Council, London’s Spread the Word, The Word Factory, Curtis Brown Creative and New Writing South among others. She is self-isolating in Sussex.