Monday, July 19, 2010

Weeding Your Manuscript

Contest Time! Every writer packs his/her manuscript with unnecessary words or phrases. I do it and Stephen King does it. Right, Steve? The best way to heighten your awareness of clutter is to ask someone else to bracket the words that can be deleted without losing meaning. If you leave a comment today, you'll be eligible to win my services. I will bracket the clutter in the first five pages of your manuscript. I am very kind.

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?


Unknown said...

I just discovered the site today and I'm glad I did - very interesting article and helpful. Certainly gives me some things to think about with my own writing.

Plus, I could do with a five page sampling of personal help, so of course I'm going to leave a comment. :)

Terri Tiffany said...

This past weekend, I found a list online of unnecesary words--like temper tantrum, or ATM machine--lol my husband and I enjoyed them because we really do speak that way--so I went through some of my work and found knelt down, rose up, ugh!

BK said...

I don't do weeding until near the very end of the manuscript process. I do so many tweakings and revisions to get the story down just right that it doesn't make sense for me to do it sooner. One of my pet phrases is some variation of "for long moments".

Patti Hill said...

Well done, Jason. So glad you found us.

Terri, I found a looong list of unnecessary lists. Let me see...I'll have to hunt that down.

BK, we all have our writing rhythm. I comb through once, twice, three times. I have a hard time letting my ms go.

Laura J. Davis said...

Great article and I do need help, as I'm a chatty Cathy. I write like I speak, which according to my husband, makes sense only to me.

Patti Hill said...

My husband will ask, "Did you take your Chatty Patti pills this morning?" I so understand what you're saying, Laura.

Steena Holmes said...

This is exactly what I needed to read today! I have chapters that start slow and need to do some weeding today ... thanks for posting this!

DianeMarkins said...

Patti, this was a solid teaching piece using few words! :) I learned to write in journalism school where every word was subject to deletion because of space. In recent years I've had to learn how to use more words--especially adjectives. Now I need to continue improving balance!

MandyB said...

I confess to being a 'newbie' at writing (only 18 months) but after succeeding in the 2009 NaNoWriMo I found muself with a novel worth persuing. I have finished my first ever edit of the entire manuscript and am now re-writing each chapter - more dialogue, less exposition etc. I have found that reading the paragraphs from the last sentance to the first helps 'see' mistakes and 'extra' words. I have found Novel Matters to be a wealth of information and help. Thank you

Patti Hill said...

Steena: Happy weeding!
Diane: I was very self-conscious while writing this article. Oh, is that an extraneous word? Redundant? Needed? Silent scream. BTW, I started in journalism, too.
Mandie: We love newbies at Novel Matters! Congratulations on successfully completing NaNoWriMo with a promising novel. Don't be shy about speaking up. You have a lot to offer with your fresh eye.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I typically weed through as one of the last stages of my editing process. But even after that, I bet I could find instances of all the examples you gave above :) It's definitely a challenge to see these things in our own work. Thanks for the examples. I'm going to hold onto them for when I start editing my WIP.

some chick said...

Patti - I'm game! Sounds like fun.

Mandy - I won NaNo last year as well, though unfortunately, don't have a workable novel (though I've discovered a lot of ways to kill people off -I'm sure my search history would make any FBI agent cringe!). NaNo was great for getting in the habit of writing for me and I'm now on to other WIPs. Cheers!

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti: This is so wonderful of you to hold this kind of contest! Come on, everyone! Get a comment in here. What Patti can teach you using your own manuscript will open your eyes to a new level of excellence.

And you're sooooooo lucky it's Patti. She is a master. And she's kind. (Me? Not so much. I'm brutal.)

Hey! If they comment more than once, does it count as more than one entry?????

Anonymous said...

I try not to weed as I go, but I came to prose through several years of poetry, and is difficult to force myself to get it done and then fix it.

Patti Hill said...

Cindy: I would try Mandy's idea. It's brilliant. I taught my fourth-grade students to read sentences backward to look for spelling errors. A new perspective works!

Some Chick: All right, girlfriend. Let's go in with our red pencils cocked and loaded!

Bonnie: Sure! Bring on the yakkity yak about redundancy. As you can see, I could use it.

Accidental Poet: Do whatever works for you. When I garden, I'm forever stooping to pluck a weed. It's the same with my writing. I cannot silence the editor in my head, so I've decided to befriend her. She likes chocolate, too.

Anonymous said...

Patti, another excellent post! A [definite] keeper. Love all the comments.

I've begun making my own list [of words], either redundant or unnecessary, [particularly] adverbs, then I do a word search on each when I finish the manuscript. In almost every case I delete the word. That's made me [more] cautious about putting it in in the first place. In that way, I'm learning to tighten my manuscript as I write. It saves time in the end.

Lynn McCallum said...

Thank you for the post, Patti. It is very enlightening. I need help with weeding and would love to have your help with the process.
Lynn McCallum

Katie Ganshert said...

I do a ton of weeding when I revise. Usually, I'll go from a rough draft of 100,000+ words to a final draft of 85 - 95K. I'm not stranger to the delete key! Great post - very helpful. :)

Christa Allan said...

I use the "Lard Factor Formula" when I'm teaching revision to my students, which means they have to reduce their writing my 30%.

Of course, I can always count on the lovely who just arbitrarily deletes three out of every ten words. Eventually, they "get" the idea.

One of my students' favorites: "I was thinking in my head..." Unfortunately, I do know that some of them are thinking in places they shouldn't be.

Others: free gift, stood up, dropped down, 2 am in the morning, the month of March, empty hole, brief moment...

Patti Hill said...

Sharon: You're so right. Becoming aware of unnecessary words is the first step toward tighter writing. Every word MUST count! Oh, sorry for shouting.

Lynn: Your name is in the hat. Good luck!

Katie: Well done! Keep up the good work.

Christa: Lard Factor? Ha! Can I audit your class? And thanks for the list of redundant words. I use them daily.

some chick said...

Your inner editor likes chocolate? That's so funny - because mine happens to like margaritas. We're awful close friends now.

If Patti is kind and Bonnie is brutal, I would love to see them both take on the same piece! That would be fascinating.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I love words, which is a temptation to heap them upon each other. To say something twice, differently as in Hebrew poetry is an intellectual pleasure. On the other hand we must not forget Paul writing from prison knowing every word would be censored by the Roman guards. He was a master of clarity.
I was greatly dismayed to read on this website that adverbs are considered sinful. Why shed an entire category of human expression? They add nuance and depth, for instance 'petulantly humble' or 'generously humble' (never 'meekly humble') are human degrees of a divine attribute. Toward this weeding concept adverbs minimize words. I might write, 'her humility was shrouded in petulance' once in a piece but eventually I would want to be more succinct.
My personal weakness for wordiness is the little devil 'of'. 'the expression of the exuberance of her joy' rather than 'she exuded joy'. Reading aloud is helpful (I shall try an accent or two!) We love to hear our own voices but sentences with too many 'ofs' tangle the tongue.
My favourite redundancy is 'hot water heater' rather than 'hot water sustainer'. (Spell check did not like that word! It is not also an enemy of clarity and brevity? Would it accept 'that which sustains the heat of the water'?)

Patti Hill said...

Some Chick: Don't be fooled by the word "kind." I am kindly brutal. Grr.

Henrietta: Yes, you're right. It's impossible to write without adverbs. We focus our attention on the -ly adverbs, but adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
She drove SLOWLY. (verb)
She drove a VERY fast car. (adj.)
She walked QUITE quickly down the highway. (adverb)

Patti Hill said...

Some Chick: Don't be fooled by the word "kind." I am kindly brutal. Grr.

Henrietta: Yes, you're right. It's impossible to write without adverbs. We focus our attention on the -ly adverbs, but adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
She drove SLOWLY. (verb)
She drove a VERY fast car. (adj.)
She walked QUITE quickly down the highway. (adverb)

Anonymous said...

Help! I'm dying of pleonasm!

Melinda Evaul said...

Great post. I'm weeding my manuscript this week. Cut 1000 words so far. Looking for redundancies and "weasel" words from a list. Pleonasm sounds more professsional than wordy. I'll remember it as I ferret out my little rascals.

Jan Cline said...

I think most of us have a love hate relationship with unnecessary words. Im learning to manage them and divide and conquer! Thanks for the great offer!

Heather said...

Weeding is never a pleasant task whether it is a garden or a manuscript. I am pulling weeds right now and find it challenging. I am curious though, is it possible that sometimes a few weeds makes for an interesting read?

Samantha Bennett said...

"Just!" This word is littered throughout my first drafts. And Laura, I so relate. Great post, Patti!

Anonymous said...

Samantha, "just" is high on my list of words to weed, too. Don't realize how often I use it till I Search and [Replace] Destroy.

Patti Hill said...

Vonilda: (Did I get your name right?) Help is on the way. Your name is in the hat. I'll be picking at the end of the day.

Melinda:Send the little rascals packing. Good work!

Jan: The more we weed unnecessary words, the more our love grows for uncluttered prose. But yes, I have my favorites, too.

Heather: Absolutely. There is a place for a more "cluttered" language, especially when it suits our characters' speech. It's all about balance.

Samantha: My two weed words are "just" and "nearly." I so understand.

Laura Davis said...

Along with the word "just" I am horrible with exclamation points. As I stated previously, I write like I speak and since my life is one big exclamation point, I tend to overuse them. But, lately I have become aware of what I'm doing. It's kind of like breaking a bad habit. Now if I could only find a way to stop biting my nails! (use of exclamation point intentional) :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Laura: It's so weird, that exclamation point. I never use it in my novels. But in correspondence, blog posts, and blog comments, I am the QUEEN of exclamation points!!!

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, what a great idea for a contest,and what a prize!

I actually enjoy the editing process, because it's like polishing furniture - the shine is so rewarding! (Oops. I say "so" too much.)

Can you see the marketing tag for a manuscript weed killer? "Fight harmful pleonasms!"

Laura J. Davis said...

Woohoo! I won! Thank you Patti! Look at all those exclamation marks. LOL!

Anonymous said...

Like many, I just found your site today and it brought a smile to my lips. I finished my novel what feels like forever ago and I'm stuck editing the manuscript now. I want to do it at least two or three times before I begin to consider query letters. If I don't have an amazing finished product, why bother trying to sell it to the world. Thank you for having a great site and for the reminders. Off to edit!