Saturday, March 6, 2010

We Regret to Announce Some Cuts

Yeah that's right. I'm late posting this. And we all know the rules--that mean I get cut from the team.

Also, Bennett, you're cut. Adamson, you're cut, too. Belicynski, cut. Harper, cut. Brannon, Moody, Richmond, Young, McLeod--you're all cut.

Brown, you're still good.

Wait--J. Brown? No, you're cut.

Everyone who's left, let's talk about this week's topic.

One of the most common complaints I hear from people (in person and in various places online) is that it's impossible to cut anything from their work. There's just no way to make their novel less that 600,000 words. It's a miracle they've squeezed the screenplay down to 190 pages. The manuscript cannot be any shorter. All too often, they're saying this after the first draft. Heck, some people talk about their manuscript getting longer as they do successive drafts.

Y'see, Timmy, writers have to make cuts. They have to make their manuscript leaner, meaner, and cleaner. Readers prefer it that way. Editors prefer it that way.

So, a few painless ways you can make a few cuts and maybe trim a few hundred words from your writing...

Adverbs-- When it comes down to it, adverbs are the Shemps of the writing world. We try to pretend they're important, but they can always be replaced. As most of us get caught up in the flow of words, the impetus of a scene, and the thing that slides by most often is the all-but-useless adverb. For example...

--She excitedly tore open the present and happily said “This is the best Christmas ever!”

--They shouted loudly at the team.

--“Maybe I saw something, maybe I didn’t,” said Wakko coyly.

Do any of these adverbs add anything to these sentences? Three out of five times if you’re using an adverb, you just don’t need it. The fourth time odds are you’re using the wrong verb, and once you find the right one, again, you won’t need the adverb. And that fifth time... well, maybe it’s only one in six. If you’re using your vocabulary well, there aren’t many times you need an adverb.

Writer/ Editor Pat LoBrutto once tossed put a great rule of thumb I've mentioned a few times. One adverb per page, four adjectives per page. It’s only a guideline, granted, but if you’re averaging six or seven adverbs per paragraph maybe you should give them all a second look.

Hey, speaking of adjectives...

Adjectives—People often create compound adjectives from hell to describe things that tend to be pretty mundane when you think about it.

--She had ocean-like dark blue eyes.

--His armor was made of polished, meticulously-engraved, glossy-black ceramite.

--The tall, majestic, awe-inspiring cliffs of weatherworn, charcoal-gray stone loomed over them.

There’s an odd habit I’ve seen among fledgling fantasy writers to use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence--often redundant ones like "obsidian black hair." It’s part of that purple prose I mentioned above. It's not exclusive to that genre, but frequent enough I felt it's worth mentioning.

Of course, we all go a little overboard now and then (anyone who says they don't is lying to you) because we’re convinced this person, this place, this thing needs more description. Yet we all know too much description brings things too a grinding halt.

That—This is a word people tend to drop into their writing a lot, and a good four out of five times their writing would be tighter without it. I used to be a that junkie until someone pointed out how unnecessary it often is.

--He ran off in the same direction that Wakko had.

--She believed that once the button was pressed, the world would be saved.

--Yakko knew once Dot saw the puppy that she would want to take it home.

On a recent manuscript I was working on, I cut over 1000 that's--almost a solid four pages. Use the Find feature in Word (it’s up there under Edit), search for uses of that in your writing, and see how many of them are necessary. Odds are you’ll find at least half of them aren’t.

"As you know..." --This is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is. Really. Think about it. Just by saying "as you know," I'm stating that you--the person I'm speaking to--already know the facts I'm about to share. So why am I repeating them? As a writer, why would I have two characters engage in such a useless bit of dialogue?

When a writer puts in "as you know" or one of its half-breed cousins, it's a weak attempt to put out some exposition through dialogue. If you're using it, almost across the board there's either (A) a better way to get the information to the reader or (B) no need for this information because it is already covered somewhere.

If you've got a really solid manuscript--I mean rock-solid-- you might be able to get away with doing this once. Just once. As long as you don't do it your first ten pages.

Useless Modifiers -- I've also called this Somewhat Syndrome a few times. This is another one I wrestle with a lot, although I like to tell myself I've gotten better about it. It's when you pepper your writing with somewhat.., a bit..., slightly..., and other such modifiers. Nine times out of ten they're not doing anything except adding to your word count and slowing your story. Use the Find feature again, see how many of them are doing anything, and look how much tighter and stronger your writing is without them.

Appeared to be... --This is one of those phrases some people latch onto and use all the time. Problem is, most of them don't understand it. It tends to be used as an introduction of sorts, leading the reader into some purple-prose description. This phrase sometimes disguises itself as looked like or seemed to be or some variation thereof.

The thing is appeared to be doesn’t get used alone. It’s part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction to the appearance. So when you’re saying...

--Phoebe appeared to stand six feet tall.

...what you’re really saying is...

--Phoebe appeared to stand six feet tall, but she was actually closer to five foot five without her stiletto heels.

And what you meant to be saying all along was just...

--Phoebe stood six feet tall.

If you aren't trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong.

Long Names – If you’ve got a lot of characters with names like MacMortimerstein or Vandervecken, they’re going to take up a lot of space as their names get used again and again. They're also awkward for the reader to juggle and keep track of. Plus, several of them will die as other characters rush to blurt out “Dear God, Doctor MacMortimerstein, look out for that... ahhhhh, too late!”

Try using simple names like Mort or Van, which are easier for readers to keep track of as well. It's also human nature to shorten such names when we speak, so it makes for better dialogue, too. True, this will not lessen your word count, but it can shorten your page count, which is the next best thing.

Keep in mind, if there’s a solid reason for your alien cyborg billionaire midget to be called Bannakaffalatta and not Ban, stick with it. But if it’s just a background character you’re using for two chapters or three scenes...

Anyway, there's seven quick, relatively painless cuts. Try them out and see if you can drop a few hundred words or more.

Next time, we'll deal with this rampant ignorance, even if I have to explain everything using small words.

Until then, go write.


  1. wait, so if i'm cut, do i still need to post comments? ;)

    "that" used to be my nemesis too - now it's "seemed to". And i swear writing's getting to be like one of those diets where the list of things that're okay keeps getting smaller and smaller... like they say you can't have carbs, or dairy, or sugar, or red meat, and then eventually someone says you can't eat carrots because they've got too much vitamin A in them, and then you beat them with a stick, and meanwhile there's someone like Cormac McCarthy with a great literary-metabolism, eating whatever the hell they like and staying stick-thin. Um, sorry, tangent. :D

  2. (sorry, double comment day - that'll make up for those times i forgot to comment at all)

    going back to your initial point about whittling stories from umpty-thrumpty-thousand words down to something managable... it's occured to me that i've never had to do anything that drastic because i've never managed to write something that long. For example, i've never managed a screenplay longer than 90 pages - and that's before all the godawful stuff gets cut out. I get the feeling this has less to do with me being awesome and more to do with my tiny attention span. In Rakie's ideal world, movies are 88 minutes and novels are 50k words, with very few exceptions. :)

    so now i'm wondering, what do you do when a story needs bulked out? is it possible (or advisable) to wodge a load of extra content (like subplots or whatever) into a finished story? (i've never gotten the hang of subplots, they're too much for my attention sp... oooh, a squirrel)

  3. Well, the diet analogy's kind of true, but I think it's keen to notice writing is just like a diet. When you're first starting out, you do need to follow all those lists and portions and all the instructions about carbs and protein and so on.

    However, once your body's running correctly and you understand how to eat right, it's clear there are times you can have a milkshake or pizza or whatever and it won't kill you. It can even be good for you. I used to train with an olympic weight lifter and bodybuilder, and there were points in his training when he actually needed to have cheeseburgers with extra mayo.

    Which flows nicely into...

    Y'know, Rakie, you just reminded me I've had the bones of a "bulking up" post rattling around in my skull for a while now. Would you mind waiting until post-after-next for me to do a full pontification on adding stuff?

  4. heh. I'm liking my diet analogy, i think i'll patent it. Now anyone else who uses it has to pay me.

    and sure thing, i don't mind waiting a couple of weeks! in fact, i was hoping to nudge you in the direction of a ponification on the subject... i've got an idea to do for ScriptFrenzy but i'm worried it's a bit slight. :D