The Nitty Gritty

The Nitty Gritty

Welcome to the Nitty Gritty. In this blog post, I’m going to be talking about the eight ways that you can significantly reduce word count and tighten up your story that I mentioned two weeks ago in the blog post The Editing Process. This is where I lead you through examples of the nitty gritty and show you exactly why it’s important to look for these specific instances in your writing, so that you may have better overall prose.

I want to make clear that while I offer examples and synonyms for words presented in the lists that follow, you should also consult a thesaurus that will have a vast amount more knowledge than me.

Nitty Gritty 1: Variations of heard

When we are looking for these types of words, we are looking for words like hear, heard, listened, sound, etc.

Old: The faint trotting Eirek had heard stopped and he looked to see the female centaur with jade hair pointing her bow downwards. (22)

Revised: The faint trotting stopped. He looked to see the female centaur with jade hair point her bow downwards. (18)

Old: The sound of rushing water from the side waterfalls made it hard to concentrate, (14)

Revised: Rushing water from the side waterfalls made it hard to concentrate, (11)

Old: When he heard heavy thuds coming from the staircase, Hydro turned to see a large man in silk. I did not know Eska kept pig pens in his estate too. (30)

Revised: Heavy thuds seized Hydro’s attention. A large man dressed in silk descended the staircase. I did not know Eska kept pig pens in his estate too. (26)

The reason that this one is include in the nitty gritty is because “hearing” something takes us outside of the character’s mind. If this first example is already in Eirek’s mind, then I don’t need to say what he is hearing, simply describe it. Same goes for Hydro in the third example, too. This gives us more immediacy and deletes words.

You’ll notice in the first example I cut four words. In the second example, three words are taken out. Now, while this may not seem like a whole lot, imagine over the course of an entire novel what this may do for you and your word count. Recently, I looked over my first novel and noticed nearly 100 instances of either heard, sound, or listened. Just those three together. If I deleted four words for every case, that’d be around 400 fewer words in my novel. We are only on the nitty gritty tip 1 here folks, stick with me.

Nitty Gritty 2: Variations of see

When we are scouring our novels, short stories, or manuscripts for this word, it’s important to consider possible variations that may occur: see, saw, seen, looked, observe, examine, identify, etc.

While I am not advocating removing all of these, I am advocating that you take a look at them and decide whether you truly need them or not. Or, if they are “see” or “looked” at the very least, you can change them into better words like surveyed or examined.

Continuing on with an example from above.

Revised: The faint trotting stopped. He looked to see the female centaur with jade hair point her bow downwards. (18)

This was my “revised” version of the first example. Notice, though, that I have the word see in here. Let’s try to make it even more concise.

Even Better: The faint trotting stopped. A female centaur with jade hair pointed her bow downwards. (14)

Notice that, in total, I cut this sentence by eight words simply by forcing myself to take out saw and heard. It’s tighter. Faster. And it keeps the same meaning. Again, extrapolate this for a novel that is 150,000 words and you can imagine that a novel could be shrunk down exponentially through small various techniques such as this.

Let’s try a whole scene now and see the results.

Here, I am just focusing on the “see” or “look” verbs. I reduced the word count, though, by twelve words. Incredible, right?

Now, you may argue the meaning is changed, but it hasn’t. I do not need to note that Linn’s mother saw a servant. Why not? Because that is already expressed through dialogue and how the mysterious person is addressing her as Lady Clayse. It shows the attitude of Linn’s mother even more, but now acknowledging the servant and putting her hand up, continuing to focus on her daughter.

By doing revisions such as this, I have more words to describe the family relationship. For example, I used five words to show how affectionate Linn’s mother is towards her daughter by “pinching her cheeks.” Regardless, I still end up with twelve less words. I am sure you are beginning to see how crucial this step of revision is. Let’s continue.

Nitty Gritty #3: Variations of To Be

Here we are looking for all the be verbs: am, is, are, were, was, being, etc. Usually, but not all the time, this shows passive voice and something that we can change to make it more active.

An easy example to explain passive voice to you is something like this. (This is not from my book).

Old: The gun was shot by bill. (6)

New: Bill shot the gun. (4)

In the first case, we are putting more emphasis on the gun—the object—and in the second, we are putting more emphasis on the subject, Bill. Now, I’m not saying all passive voice needs to be eliminated from writing, sometimes it’s necessary, but in writing, we should always try to keep an active voice. It gives more immediacy as I said before.

Let’s look at another example.

Old: Zain punched the floor and unsheathed his sword. He turned around and saw Hydro in combat with the bald man; he was barely holding his own. Zain stormed ahead. (29)

Revised: Zain punched the floor. He noticed Hydro fighting the bald man, barely holding his own. Zain unsheathed his sword and stormed ahead. (22)

Here I get rid of the word was. It’s unnecessary. I change the word “saw”, and because I determined that I cannot just get rid of it, I at least made it a better word noticed. This is where you need to make sure you know your manuscript very well and take everything on an ad hoc (case-by-case) basis. Sometimes we cannot delete the words, sometimes we can. Editing is like putting together a puzzle, where we have to try the right combinations of words until something fits.

Nitty Gritty #4: Emotions

This tip isn’t so much about redundancy as it is the old writing adage “show don’t tell.” Typically, we want to show things, not tell things because it paints a better picture in our readers minds. Consider the following example:

Old: Her feet carried her down the streets of Rydel until she happened upon the spot where she had first met the gypsie. At least, that is where Grace thought it should have been, but she hadn’t visited the spot for months. She was confused. After walking aimlessly, Grace returned to the house sad and defeated. She needed answers. Now, more than ever. She began questioning herself. Did I even talk with her? (72)

The example above uses a lot of emotions: confused, sad, defeated. While these are not inherently bad, we can make this paragraph much nicer by showing instead of telling. Let’s look at how that may look.

Revised: Her feet carried her down the streets of Rydel until she happened upon the spot where she had first met the gypsie. At least, that is where Grace thought it should have been, but she hadn’t visited the spot for months. She walked around the promenade until dusk but could find no trace of the vendor lady anywhere. Grace returned to the house. Before entering, she sagged against the door with her slumped shoulders, elbows in her hands, fingers fidgeting as if they lost purpose. Did I even talk with her? (91)

In this case, the word count expanded. That is because I am painting a better picture for the reader. I am using more specific vocabulary. Instead of saying “she walked aimlessly,” I’m talking about how she “walked alongside the promenade until dusk.” In my mind, this shows her walking up and down this stretch of road close by the sea. I don’t say she was “defeated.” Instead, I show it in the second last sentence. There is no need to include the idea of her questioning herself, when instead, I can just have Grace ask a question in italics. (Italics means that it is an internal thought).

While you shouldn’t get rid of all emotion words, I do strongly encourage to go back through your own writing and see if there are ways that you can show the emotion, rather than just tell it. A great resource to help you with this—that every author should have—is The Emotional Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman. To be honest, I recommend any of her books for writers who really want to up their game.

That is all for Part 1. Next week, I’ll be discussing Part II about editing for the nitty gritty. Until then, happy writing. Even better, happy editing. I challenge you to go out there and start making some of these revisions in your manuscript today. 📜✍️

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