Skip to main content

Writer's Rules Revisited #3

I'm continuing my series on the "50 Rules and Tips for Writers" that I began a couple of weeks ago. These were 50+ rules and tips I'd collected over the years as a writer. As I think of one or read one in a book, I'll put it down in my notebook and save it for later. I've been collecting this list for well over a decade and it will continue to grow as time goes on. 

This series is all about fleshing out each individual rule and offering myself (as well as other writers) some food for thought on the process of writing.

You can read Part 1 here.
You can read Part 2 here. 
You can read Part 4 here.

These next three words are largely for use during the editing process. You can't obsess about self-editing while you're writing a first draft. Sure, you want that draft to be as clear and concise as possible, and as close to a final as you can get, but you need to focus on putting down each and every word that will allow you to put down the next word and sentence and paragraph and scene and so on. If you stress out about trimming things and paring them down while you're working on your early drafts. 

If you're constantly revising before your draft is done, your draft will never be done.

With that caveat in mind, we'll dive into the next three rules on the list.

12) Be economical with your words. Omit all words that aren't 100% necessary to tell the story. 
“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” --Ernest Hemingway
During the editing process you need to strip out every word that doesn't help you move the story along. Some misinterpret this to mean that you shouldn't stop for a moment to smell the roses, but if stopping to smell the roses in nice flowery prose is appropriate to set the scene for the story and advance an idea about the character, then it becomes necessary to tell the story.

Your job is to make the story and the characters and the prose flow as effortlessly as possible and having extra words, phrases, and ideas gets in the reader's way.

But brevity is hard. It takes longer to be short and quick than it is to be long winded. Pouring everything out takes no training at all, being concise takes hard work and plenty of time and effort.

It's your job to find the right word in every situation. In the English language, there are incredibly specific words for just about everything. And if there isn't, we steal it from another language. But we keep our concision that way. One of my favorites was a word Graham Greene used quite a bit was "sangfroid." It means composure of coolness as shown in danger or under trying circumstances. It's an incredibly specific word and it doesn't always fit, but knowing that it's there to helps make your job easier.

Your job is to find the right word. And so what if your reader has to go to the dictionary now and again? 
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. --Mark Twain

One of my favorite quotes (which I constantly mis-attribute to Mark Twain) sums up the effort of being concise perfectly:

I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one. --Blaine Pascal
Don't think editing is easier because it's all cuts and trims. It's rewrites and adding elegance. You might rewrite every single word of your story. And because you've already written it down in a way you thought was good enough as it is, it'll be harder to come up with a way to do it better. But that's what must be done.

But a good rule of thumb is to cut everything that gets in the way of the story.

To make sure you stay out of the way of the story, there's a couple of rules I try my hardest to follow:

13) Statements like "begins to" and "starts to" are nonsense. Someone does something or they don't. It's just more words for people to read for no reason.

I still find myself breaking this particular rule in my first drafts, but I'm moving so fast that I don't even notice. There are certainly acceptable reasons to use phrases like "begins to" and "starts to," especially if you're going to cut the action off before it really starts. But using it to say a character is doing something is an incredibly weak and wasteful way of doing it.

It's very passive writing. You're told constantly to make your writing more active by removing words like "was" and that's good advice, but these two are equally horrific offenders.

Take this sequence:
Jonathan was looking back and forth, from the beaker to the chemicals, wondering what sort of reaction he'd get. Then, he began to drop the acid into the beaker. It sizzled and popped, smoke started to waft into the air.
It's just overloaded with words that don't need to be there. It can be much more dynamic by removing the offending phrases, investing it with an energy that will subconsciously transfer to your reader.

Try this again:
Jonathan looked back and forth between the beaker and the chemicals, unsure of the reaction he'd get. Then, carefully, he squeezed droplets of the acid into the beaker. They sizzled and popped, filling his eyes with smoke.
Doesn't that add a level of "here and now" to it that the first lacked?

But that doesn't mean that the first paragraph isn't correct. If that's how it comes out the first time, there's no penalty for rewriting it later, bearing all of these things in mind.

Mark Twain found "very" to be a damn overused word:
Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. --Mark Twain
"That" is another word I find myself overusing. My editor is constantly circling it in all of my drafts in an effort to force me into evaluating each usage. You need to take away everything you can in your editing process.
Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away. -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
14) The more sparing you are with adjectives and adverbs, the more impact they will have when you do use them.

Again, this is a rule that might apply most to screenwriting, but it crosses over to prose remarkably well.

Adjectives and adverbs are very powerful description tools. Sometimes (a lot of the time) they're just too much. They can clutter your prose, get in the way of your story and annoy your readers. (Sidenote: There is a dedicated group of misguided zealots who find that all adverbs should be eliminated completely, but they are wrong. That's like buying a toolbox full of all the tools you need to craft a couch, then tossing all the screwdrivers and say you're building it with everything else available.)

When you use them sparingly, they have a greater impact when you do use them.

If you've got one or two adjectives and adverbs to an entire page, do you think they'd have a greater resonance and impact when they were read? Or less?

Since they are fewer in number, they will stand out and remain, rattling around in the reader's head longer.

Words are important, those that are written and those left unwritten.

Use them wisely.

That's what all of these rules really come down to: use your words wisely and don't waste a single one.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, and Part 4.

If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.


Popular posts from this blog

The Missed Opportunities of Days Gone By

“Hello?” I said into the phone, accepting the call from a number I didn’t recognize. “Hey,” the feminine voice on the other replied, as though I should know the sound of her voice. At a loss, I said, “Can I help you?” “It’s Brooke.” Her name stopped me. It couldn’t possibly be her. We hadn’t spoken in years, a decade perhaps. “Brooke?” “Yeah, Brooke Baker. This is Mark, right?” Jesus Christ. It was her. “Yeah, it is Mark. Brooke. Wow. How are you? It’s been a long time since… well… since anything.” “I know.” “So, how are you doing?” “Okay, I suppose…” Her voice belied her words, though. Something was up. “I… It’s just been so long and I guess I wanted to hear your voice.” “I don’t think I had a number for you. Ever. I offered a couple of times, but…” “I was a brat back then.” And that’s how a random phone call turned into a two-and-a-half hour catch-up session. We spoke of everything under the sun: people we still knew, how different we were, h

Anatomy of a Scene: The Third Man

It's time again to break down a classic scene. One that's well-written and, in my view, a fine example of excellent craft. I've done some of these articles from books (like The End of the Affair   and Starship Troopers ) and other movies (like Citizen Kane , City Lights , Raiders of the Lost Ark , and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ), but now it's time to take a look at a scene from The Third Man . It blends the best of Orson Welles (as he's in the film and drives this scene) and Graham Greene, who wrote this particular screenplay. Before we get to the scene, we need some context. The Third Man is a tale of the black market in Vienna, just after World War II. It's about a cheap, dime-store Western novelist named Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotton) and his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles.) Lime offered Martins a job in Vienna, so Martins leaves America and arrives, only to find that Harry Lime is dead. Penniless, without a friend or reason to be

Anatomy of a Scene: All the President's Men

All the President's Men is one of those perfect movies. Based on a stunning true story with a brilliant screenplay from William Goldman (we've already gone through one of his scenes here with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ), it's a movie that brings all of the elements of character, plot, and drama together in a way that makes me really love and admire it.  The scene I want to go through is one that comes during a particularly trying time in the film. For those unaware, this film tells the tale of Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who cracked the Watergate story. And now, looking back on it, it all feels like one big victory, but it was marked by a number of defeats.  This is them reporting to their skeptical editor, Ben Bradlee (played brilliantly by Jason Robards) about where their investigation is at. Immediately preceding Woodward and Bernstein walking in, a salesman is trying to sell Bradlee on features his papers doe