I have made this letter a rather long one, only because I didn't have the leisure to make it shorter.
-- Blaise Pascal
Extraneous words are the weeds of a manuscript. A garden with weeds is still a garden, but its enjoyment is diminished. Likewise, a novel’s enjoyment is diminished by unnecessary words.
Note: I’ve bracketed words or phrases [in my text] that can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence.
And I am the [absolute] queen of unnecessary words. I pound out a [quick] rough draft, and must, with a pen as a hoe, thrash out redundant words and phrases.
In editorial lexicon, redundant words and phrases have a name, pleonasms. It sounds like a disease, and it is death for the novel. Pleonasms fatigue the reader and make her cranky. This is counterproductive for the novelist who wants her reader to [completely] indulge herself in a story.
In everyone else’s writing, pleonasms glow in the dark, attracting the editor’s pencil like a moth. However, they’re invisible in our own writing. Our speaking habits leach into our written words. It takes practice, vigilance, and a determination for excellence to unclutter our writing.
Are you game?
Start with adjectives. First of all, adjectives are not evil. They are [absolutely] necessary for clarity in the English language. I know workshop teachers are telling you to strike every last adjective [out]. That would be a mistake. Here’s a passage from a novel I just finished reading:
This is not a vivid place. Our only strong hue is green, and this we have in every shade: the emerald velvet mosses, the glossy, tangled ivies, and in spring, the gold-greens of tender new grasses. For the rest, we move through a patchwork of grays.–From Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Rather than eradicate adjectives, let’s start by eliminating only the redundant.
Example: Unexpected surprise and end result
Surprises are unexpected by the qualification of being a surprise, and a result is something that happens at the end of an event, leaving us with the [fully] adequate nouns, surprise and result, no modifiers needed.
Onto the [much] maligned adverb. In the hierarchy of [naughty] writer sins, overusing adverbs is ranked among run-on sentences and passive voice. The adverbs of manner—like cheerfully, appealingly, assiduously, etc.—seem to focus our rage.
Example: The theater is completely filled.
There is no other way for a theater to be filled than to be filled completely. "Completely" can go.
And now for the truly insidious redundancy in writing, the pleonastic clause. In our drive for clarity, we tend to overstate and bog down the pace of our sentences.
Here’s a [common] example: She sat down in the chair.Where else is she going to sit? If she does sit someplace evocative, like a throne or a thorn bush, please include that.
Prepositional phrases provide a helpful cue [for me] when looking for weedy words. For instance, I’m forever striking the phrase “for me” out of my writing. If a first-person character is talking about herself, the phrase isn’t always necessary, as in this sentence: Looking back, I believe it was important [for me] to put some distance between my past and my future.
It [really] helps to read a manuscript [through] two or three times to weed out redundancy and/or unnecessary words. I read using an accent to slow me down. ("Cheery-o, this is a smashing manuscript!) It’s magical how the unnecessary words and phrases pop out.
At this point, you may be thinking, "Isn't this my editor's job?" Oh, how I wish it were. It's laborious weeding a manuscript. No one will care about the uncluttered beauty of your manuscript as much as you.
How do you weed out unnecessary words? Will cluttered prose force you to put a novel down? At what stage of your writing do you weed? Any tricks to share for making redundant words and phrases pop? Do you have a pet phrase you’re forever weeding?