little tweaks, big results
Good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate it or tweak it.
Everyone’s a writer these days. Whether working on your novel or captioning your latest social media image, you’re writing every day.
How do you choose your words?
Do you always use the same few words, or are you a logophile who loves playing with shades of meaning?
Although it’s difficult to count the number of words in the English language, around 170,000 words are currently in use. An adult native speaker uses 20-35,000 words (source) depending on age, education, location and so on.
Yet you can improve your writing immediately by using fewer words. It might seem obvious to avoid long words, but what about small words?
Some small words reduce the flow and clarity of your writing. You might not notice them because they’re so common, they’re practically invisible. Before we look at them in more detail, make an exception for dialogue.
Writing rules are less strict when writing dialogue. Most people don’t speak properly all the time. You can make your lines sound natural is by reading them out loud.
No doubt you’ve been advised to write the way you speak, but remember that written dialogue is natural speech, polished.
Reducing the frequency of these four common words will sharpen your prose, whether fiction or nonfiction. No words are completely excluded – just use them with purpose.
That’s That, That’s All
Good writing does not come from verbiage but from words.
“That” is a common word which you can often cut without losing the sense of your sentence.
This is the plate that she told me to wash. I can see that it’s dirty.
This is the plate she told me to wash. I can see it’s dirty.
The sentence is more direct if you reword it.
She told me to wash this dirty plate.
Try your sentence with and without that. Rewrite if needed.
The Thing Is…
I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.
What is the thing you’re trying to convey? Using “thing” is imprecise at best, and at worst pulls your reader out of the writing. If he’s scratching his head wondering what the thing is, you’ve lost him. Find a better way to express your idea.
The thing is, we’ll never know the truth. He may or may not have a thing for kale.
We’ll never know the truth. He may or may not love kale.
Look for thing and either define it or remove it, unless you aim to mystify the reader.
What’s the thing we all strive for? Happiness.
What emotion do we all strive for? Happiness.
Parts Of Possession
Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.
This tiny word is absolutely essential – but not all the time. You can’t speak or write without using “of” and this leads to overuse through familiarity. Consider these four examples.
It’s not that big of a problem or
It’s not such a big problem or
It’s not a big problem
Which sounds better to you?
The first example sounds ‘different’ to my ear, since I speak and write British English. I can use the difference to make my American character more believable. But if my English character said that phrase it wouldn’t be authentic.
The cadences of speech spill into our written words, so think about the effect you want to produce. Ask yourself who is speaking, and what’s the context?
The roof of the house. The sleeve of his shirt. The golden colour of her hair or
The roof. The shirt sleeve. Her golden hair.
Sometimes we over-explain. The reader can follow along if the scene is clearly described, and you don’t have to assign every detail.
I present Achmael, Lord Protector of Blein, Archduke of Nimra, Third of his name… or
This is Achmael Blein III.
The first example sits well in a high fantasy story, while the second suits a more modern setting.
The end of the day. The blink of an eye. The dead of night. A thing of beauty.
Watch out for clichés – overused, tired descriptions and metaphors. Rewrite the phrase and make it your own.
What Was Going On?
No words are too good for the cutting-room floor, no idea so fine that it cannot be phrased more succinctly.”
Writers often use the word “was” paired with a verb ending in -ing. It’s natural in storytelling to say something like this.
“So I was moving away, and all of a sudden there was a loud crash behind me.”
Writing aims for a more polished delivery, and the style varies with the desired effect. Replace all was/am/were plus -ing verbs with the simple past tense, which is shorter and more immediate. If adverbs clutter the sentence, choose a stronger verb.
Thus “I was walking slowly” becomes “I walked slowly” or better yet “I strolled” “I crept” or “I hobbled” according to need.
For the examples above, a possible rewrite is this.
“I ran, startled by the crash of metal against metal behind me.”
Of This and That and Other Things
Four small words – that, thing, of, was – are indispensable in the right place. You’ll tighten your prose by hunting them down, shining a bright light in their eyes, and asking them, “What do you think you’re doing here?”
Only let them stay if you get a definite answer to that question. If not, you know what you have to do. Your clarity is at stake.