Ten Ways to Tighten
Ideally, art is a journey from a writer's crystal perceptions, through words' exact expression, into a reader's complete imagining. "We enjoyed your fast-moving plot and colourful characters," begins the note mailed back with your manuscript. Or, "Your article does offer a fresh slant on backpacking...." Such frustrating rejections! You impressed an editor with your imagination or research skills. Only one word blocks a sale: that insurmountable "but".
Why? You throw up your hands. Rejection slips flutter like broken wings. After all, you did your homework, you knew your material inside out, and you structured it carefully. What mysterious flaw thwarted your story's or article's publication?
Many editors will warm to a submission, but a subtle doubt holds them back. The fault, hard to pin down at first, may be certain words you chose. Writing is like building. After you welded the structural steel, did you also inspect each brick? Too many, cemented the wrong way, spoil the building's facade and deter prospective buyers. Before mailing that last draft to a publisher, make one final checkcall it quality controlto scrutinize your word choices.
How do you find the "right" words? By spotting and yanking out the "wrong" ones. For some authors, a word processor simplifies the hunt. Just tap a key, and with your program in "search" mode, scan the manuscript for each warning word or syllable capitalized on the following pages. Every time one of these words or syllables lights up, study the sentence and ask yourself five questions:
1. How much does this word add in this spot?
2. Can I switch to a more exact, sensuous word?
3. Would a different form of the word sound stronger?
4. If I tighten the sentence, will I need this word at all?
5. Do the surrounding words appear in the most effective order?
Applying such a mini-questionnaire to each warning word may reveal that you did not, in fact, write what you meant, but must think out the idea further. Of course, exceptions pop up. Some sentences, you may decide, stand best as you first wrote them. No harm done. By proving you right, double-checking increases your literary confidence.
Writers who work on typewriters can also benefit from this verbal alarm system. Reread your manuscript, not for sense, but for form. Eyes close to the page, scan for red-light syllables. If you have trouble focusing on single words apart from overall meaning, read the manuscript backwards, from last line to first.
Warning words appear in many guises, depending on how they are used. We'll talk about kinds that clutter description and others that weaken action. But remember, the words and syllables capitalized on the following pages are not wrong in themselves. Rather, view them as editing tools. Like signs, "Caution: author at work," they point to possible dangers. Often, they nudge us to rewrite. However, sometimes a closer look confirms that the sentence should rest unchanged. For best results, think of these warning words not as rigid rules, but as little reminders.
1. MOST, VERY, QUITE, -LY
"Most", "very", "quite", "-ly" (the adverbial suffix) point to three popular offenders in description: weak adjectives, nouns, and verbs that need extra words to prop up their meaning. For example, why settle for the flat phrase, "Janine, a very beautiful woman," where the adverb "very" must bolster the colourless "beautiful"?
Instead, trim to a single, bold adjective: "Janine, a stunning woman". Even one strong noun could suggest her exceptional beauty: "Janine, a goddess".
In the same manner, why stop at a vague sketch, such as "The athlete ran quickly"? Substituting one lively verb"The athlete sprinted"both fills out and sharpens the picture.
2. -ION, -ATE, -OUS
These suffixes reflect the Latin inheritance enriching the English language. The abstract, general words they end ring with authority in legal and scholarly documents. Elsewhere, their overuse betrays a writer's haste or fuzzy thinking.
In creative and commercial prose, concrete Anglo-Saxon words serve best. For example, "ballroom decorations" states a category, but gives no clue what the ornaments look like. Why not spell out "streamers", "popcorn balls", "tinsel"? The narrower the noun, the more focused the picture.
Indeed, focus is the essence of description. Creating a scene with words is like developing a photograph: a good writer labours over the process until a blur tightens into crisp shapes, colours, and detail.
3. OF THE
"Of the" prepositional phrases often signal sequence flaws. Consider a description that begins, "At the top of the hill". Close your eyes. Three words at a time, say the phrase aloud: "At the top... of the hill."
"Top", the first key word, suggests a relative position in spacebut of what? and where? You cannot complete the mental picture until you hear the second key word, "hill". Of course, the whole phrase is short, and in a moment the mind hops from "top" to "hill". But why delay at all? The best descriptions spring a scene to life. Why hold the reader at a distance, when he or she can stand on the hill from the start?
Fix such a phrase by changing it into possessive form"at the hill's top", or, by extension, "on the hilltop". That way, the main location ("hill") appears first, and the detail ("top") second. In other words, set up the picture in sequence. First focus imagination's camera on the panoramic whole, to show the general location. Gradually roll closer, narrowing the focus from large to small.
Certain descriptions work better in reverse. Imagine the heightened suspense when an espionage film opens close-up on blood-stained fingers, pulls back to show an overturned desk and chairs, and at last reveals the entire outer wall of a foreign embassy blown away.
"Of the" can pinpoint a second flaw. In "at the top of the hill" nothing moves. The image remains static, an isolated photograph. Vigorous prose, however, should drive ideas or plot forward, like a movie. The next four prepositions help solve this problem, by signalling where the action has stalled.
4. IN, ON, TO, AT
These prepositions drag prose to a halt. Why not keep ideas moving forward as much as possible? Let "in" tumble "into", "on" leap "onto", and "to" lean ahead as "toward". Of course, sometimes added action makes no sense. For example, you can "jump into the well", but you cannot change "the cat in the well meows" to "the cat into the well meows".
Like "in", "on", and "to", "at" creates a static effect. Replace it with an action: instead of "at the mountain's top" (nothing happens), switch to a participle: "Dotting the mountain's top, the climbers. . . . " Now, from word one, life stirs.
5. SUDDENLY, THEN
When drafting action scenes, writers often grab these words to flag turning points. In revising, pull out such markers and fill their space with tight description.
Take "Suddenly Johnny came around the corner." If we switch to a speedier verb, "Johnny spun around the corner", the change occurs before our eyes. "Suddenly" is no longer needed as a transition.
In the same way, writers often lean on "then" to mark a time lapse: "Mary kissed Harold goodbye. Then she headed down the lane."
Why not be more graphic? Dramatize the moment slipping by: "Mary kissed Harold goodbye. Twisting her handkerchief, she headed down the lane." The added gesture shows, not tells. The reader can see time pass.
6. DOWN, UP, BACK, ON, IN
"Down", "up", "back", "on" and other spatial words do sneak in unwanted. Once in a while, English idiom needs them, as in "Joe mopped up the spill." However, most of the time, such squatters should be given the boot. "Joe descended [down] the stairs", "A grizzly climbed [up] the tree", "The bus returned [back] to the garage", "Drums thumping, the parade continued [on] down the street", "Two girls jumped [in] between the cars." Why point in the same direction twice?
7. IS, ARE, WAS, WERE, WOULD
Nothing slows writing like a weak verb. The copula family's many aunts, uncles, and cousins stall action. For example, "Helena was stubborn. Oatmeal had always been the breakfast she liked least." Here "was" and "had ... been" tack two ideas into a static equation, telling us only that "Helena = stubborn" and "oatmeal = the breakfast". Nothing moves.
Instead, strong verbs could speed the action forward like an arrow: "Helena kicked the table leg. ?I hate oatmeal!' she hollered."
8. WAS . . . BY
Verbs should move, but in the right direction. The passive voice, however, turns events upside down and flattens the hero into a victim. "The mountain lion was killed by Jenny's dad's shotgun." What a dull sentence. No adventure here.
To spark excitement, rearrange the subject and completion into the livelier active voice: "Jenny blasted the mountain lion with her dad's shotgun." Whew!
9. CAME, WENT, GOT, LOOKED, SAID
In early drafts, such boards and beams rough in the ideas. However, for the structure to stand solid, verbal brick and mortar must fill the gaps.
Consider how flat the following account sounds: "Harriet came to the clearing. She got out of her car and looked across the landscape. ?It's too late. He went away,' she said."
Such sentences reduce life to an outline. Instead, brick in the blanks with precise details. How did Harriet get out of her car? What make of car? Where exactly did she look?
Imagine rebuilding the passage: "Harriet swerved into the clearing. She slammed out of her Porsche, and glared across the bracken. ?Too bloody late,' she hissed, ?the blackguard slipped away.'"
10. HAD, -ING
Ironically, "had" may reveal a lack of literary confidence. Has a stylist's ear bent too much to grammatical rules? The problem pops up when retelling events from a past earlier than the narration's.
For example, listen how this passage bumps the ear: "Louise thought about her ruined life. Last Tuesday, she had had to reveal the truth to her family, even though for so long they had believed in her. It had tried her endurance to live a lie, but once Dr. Jacobi had discovered the documents, and the police had issued a warrant for her arrest, Louise had had to admit her crime. Now that the truth had come out, at least she had nothing more to fear." Ten "had"s!
The solution? Begin with one pluperfect "had" to frame the shift backwards in time, but simplify the rest to past tenses: "Louise thought about her ruined life. Last Tuesday, she had felt compelled to reveal the truth to her family, even though for so long they believed in her. To live a lie tried her endurance, but after Dr. Jacobi discovered the documents, and the police issued a warrant for her arrest, Louise admitted her crime. Now the truth was out, at last there was nothing more to fear." Even before other editing, trimmed to only one "had", how much smoother the lines sound.
The suffix "-ing" presents the opposite problem. To show an action in progress, "-ing" is necessary and right: "Margaret singed her thumb while she was pressing her son's Sunday trousers." "Pressing" tells us that Margaret kept on ironing, despite the burn.
However, because "-ing" rings in the ear, poets especially may overuse its musical effect, singing along on a tide of "-ing"s, when a simple past, present, or future tense would do. Compare: "stars are trembling/falling/splashing/sparks into dark water" with "Stars tremble/fall/splash/sparks into dark water". The first version quivers; the second holds firm.
Certain words signal a manuscript's weak spots. Indeed, as media guru Marshall McLuhan once said, "The medium is the message." Ten Ways to Tighten Your Prose has introduced some common warning words. Over the years, careful writers will add others to their private lists.
To find out how much you've learned, why not test yourself? First, search the passage below for the warning words described above. Once you find the weak spots, rework each sentence, phrase by phrase. (For a sample revision, see below.)
"Going down along the bumpy, sloping landscape, Smith, a man of advanced years, had looked for a location where he could rest his limbs, which were near exhaustion. He was very thirsty. After he had left camp at dawn, it was seven hours that he had been wandering alone, not knowing where he was. Suddenly, he was struck by an illumination. Under some very large trees at the bottom of the incline, he saw a likely spot. He hurried down."
As mentioned earlier, writing problems arise less from language itself than from unclear thinking. To capture a scene and enliven it with action and technicolour, first focus your mental camera. When the picture of what you want to convey shines sharp and true in your own mind, the right words will spring into place. Five Canadian style books offer further suggestions to help you polish your prose:
1. The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing, Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, Dundurn Press, 1985.
2. Caps and Spelling, The Canadian Press, 1981.
3. CP Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors, The Canadian Press, 1981.
4. Editing Canadian English, Second Edition, Editors' Association of Canada, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 2000.
5. The Globe and Mail Style Book, J.A. McFarlane & Warren Clements, Info Globe, 1990.
"After striking camp at dawn, seven hours later, old man Smith still stumbled alone and lost. As he angled down another gravel slope, he longed for shade where he could sprawl and stretch the cramps from his legs. His throat ached for water. Near bottom, he rounded an outcrop, and green flooded his eyes. Pines! He caught his breath. Toward the trees he plunged."
Ten Ways to Tighten Your Prose grew out of a talk by Susan Ioannou first given to the Etobicoke Writers' Group in 1987. Many thanks to Dale Loucareas for the recommendation, and to Vilma Howe and fellow members of the group for their warm, enthusiastic reception. The text was originally published as a chapbook (ISBN 978-0-920835-05-8) by Wordwrights Canada in 1994.
Copyright © 2016, 2023 by Susan Ioannou
Copies of this article may be reprinted for classroom use.
Updated January 2023