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CLEANING UP YOUR PROSE PART II

September 13, 2017

One of my most popular articles here at Fred Central is “The Overuse Of And.” It goes along with an article I did in October 2016 called “Cleaning Up Your Prose.” The use of extraneous verbiage and tying sentences together with the overuse of and is all part of what’s called readability.

Folks, your job as a writer, whatever your message, is to convey that message in the most efficient manner possible. Whether you’re challenging the readers or simply entertaining them, you need to get your point across in the ideas, not the construct of the verbiage!

Below is a tweaked version of that October 2016 article. Cleaning Up Your Prose. I’m reposting and updating it because of not only what I’ve been seeing from other writers and authors, but from myself as well. I’ll save The Overuse of And for another time.

Yes, in my own writing, when I read to my Monday critique group, I still end up with the same mistakes I talk about here at Fred Central. I always pass out eight copies to a select group out of the twenty to thirty members who usually attend. I do this because I know these people will bleed all over my stuff. I want and need that.

How many times have I said “forest through the trees?” Of course, I’m much better than I used to be, but even now, after all these years, I still don’t always write what I’m intending. As a result, I can end up with extra verbiage just like you and everyone else. I find a lot of it in the quick edits I do before I read, but I don’t try to tear things apart because I know I need second and more sets of eyes to catch it all. You will too. However, the more you know…

So, without further adieu…

INTRO

As not only an editor but a self-editor (since I’m also a writer), I see everything under the sun when it comes to extra verbiage. We all do it. Whether it’s extraneous words in our dialogue to plain old excess narrative, we need to write lean, mean and get to the point. The more garbage you add on, even if some literary circles love words, most readers will lose interest (or at least struggle to stay interested). Also, those extra words add clutter that weakens the impact of everything you’re trying to say.

Self-editing has its hazards. There’s always the forest-through-the-trees mentality. That’s unavoidable because you’re too close to the story and your mind tends to fill in what you intended to say rather than what you put on the page. The way to fix a lot of that is to set the writing aside, move on to something else and come back to it later. The biggest fix is experience. The more you write and learn the craft, the cleaner you’ll write, as long as you heed advice, have the aptitude to pick up the tricks, and practice them. Also, when you go back for the second or third or more edits, you’ll more easily spot the issues and fix them.

The best way to fix it is not only self-editing, but second and more sets of eyes, beta readers and writer’s groups, if available. The more sets of eyes you can get on your prose, the better to see what you can’t.

WHAT IS EXTRA VERBIAGE?

Wow, where to begin?

REPEATED WORDS

How about double/repeated words? I don’t mean stuttering like but but but or he he he did this. I’m talking about using the same key word two or more times in the same sentence or within the same paragraph, or even page. In this case, I’m not talking about articles such as the and and, but for instance, unique words like a common action tag…nodded.

Nodded, used as a tag, is one of my weaknesses. Detach nodded…whatever

In the next paragraph, or maybe the one after that, Elroy nodded…whatever

Repeated words.

When you see multiple action tags using the same word on the same page, or even too often within the same chapter, the repetition becomes noticeable.

Or, too many saids as a tag on one page.

Using window five times in a paragraph.

Repeating a character’s name five times within a paragraph. It should only be there once. Then, when you fix it, if the name’s at the start of each sentence, you replace it with the pronoun, He or She. Guess what? Now you have the character’s name once, but either he or she four times, starting each of those sentences! Same problem, you just replaced one repeated word with another. Time to re-write three of those sentences to eliminate the need for the pronoun at the beginning of each sentence. Also, keep in mind using too many of them hidden within each sentence. See how you can eliminate some of them within each sentence by re-writing the sentences to avoid having to use the pronoun constantly. A lot of this comes to style and feel.

This also applies to using too many key words on a page. Yes, on a PAGE. Certain words that stand out can become repetitious if used more than once on a page. It’s something of a feel you have to get when you read the chapter, or someone else does.

It can be simple words like car, cart, window or a name like Susan. It can be a title like Congressman so and so or mountain or just about anything. When those unique words pop up again and again on the same page, they stand out. You may be blind to it. It doesn’t have to be any particular word, just unique to the page and repeated that makes it stand out. It’s a matter of feel.

PRONOUNS

With some authors, there isn’t a pronoun they don’t love.

This is especially true in first-person but can also have a huge effect in third as I alluded to with the substitution thing in the previous section.

In first-person, it’s I, me, my in every sentence. You have to get creative to eliminate them or it gets repetitious.

In third person, it’s he, she, him, her in excess. Same difference.

In true omniscient, it’s they & them.

When you see them over and over again, page after page, it becomes annoying, sometimes in the extreme.

ADVERBS

It’s said that some authors never found an adverb they didn’t like. I’ve read a few of these people.

Very, absolutely, considerably…the list goes on. These are all extra words that have little to no impact on the sentence.

Example: Joe stood back and stared at the very huge man.

Joe stood back and stared at the huge man.

While I have other issues with that sentence, the main one is the completely (also an adverb) unnecessary very in the sentence.

You can tell a lot of adverbs because they usually end in y or ly.

Another one is just.

Cyndi got there just in time.

In this case, you can almost justify using it.

I’d make it less passive.

Cyndi rushed through the door two seconds before the train pulled away.

COMMON CONVERSATIONAL, CLICHÉS & OTHER PHRASES

There are certain common phrases we use in dialogue and elsewhere that don’t belong in narrative.

Though it would seem Randy was hungry, he could not eat.

No ceegar, folks.

Despite his stomach pangs, Randy could not eat.

Clichés? Too many to list. Consider them extraneous. On the other hand, I use them sometimes here in my articles. Why? Juss cuz. I take a conversational approach to these articles and this isn’t a novel. Two different things. However, consider them poison in a novel or short story. Unless you have a very strong justification for using a cliché, fuggddaboudit! Yeah, that’s even a cliché now!

There have been certain articles floating around about killing certain phrases and sentences in prose. Good advice. They’re overused and are bordering on cliché.

RESEARCH

The best way to learn these things is to practice practice practice (hey, three repeated words!). Also, if you haven’t had classes, belong to a writer’s group or have a mentor to help you, check out books in the library (or on-line) on grammar, adverbs & style. These books can do wonders. I have to admit I’ve never cracked one of those books (even though I’ve bought a few) because I learned from alternative methods. However, the one book I do use is the Chicago Manual of Style.

In summary, I still stand by this advice. After twenty-two plus years now, I still make mistakes all the time and freely admit it. I’m a lot better than I used to be, but I still have to do plenty of editing after a free-form writing session. Please!

The only way to get better is knowledge and practice. Then, you can minimize your mistakes and make the editing that much easier. Don’t ever expect to eliminate it. That’s a nice lofty goal, but for most of us, be realistic and don’t stress about it. Don’t let it get in the way of your muse. Always keep in mind to hone your craft and get better so crappy writing doesn’t get in the way of your muse. I hope this article gives you a bit to go by.

Happy writing!

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