Writing with Economy: My Favorite Tricks

As a writer, I've spent more time looking up tips and advice from the writers I admire than I care to admit, and I don't mind admitting how frustrating it can be. I've seen so much writing advice given without explanation, as though by divine command. Have you ever heard writers talk about adverbs? Writers go absolutely batty for cutting adverbs from their writing. We talk about cutting adverbs as though they are the enemy in a never-ending war which threatens to destroy us all. "I cut 11 adverbs today. Got to get a beer." "Yeah? I cut 17 adverbs. I can barely feel my fingers." "I think you mean, 'My fingers are numb.'" "Wait. No. What have I done? Oh, god...  oh, ggrughllghr...." Those were choking sounds. I'm not sure that was clear. That writer is dead now, from using an adverb.

I sound glib about it. In fact, I like the adverb advice. I subscribe to it. But for years, I didn't want to subscribe to it because I didn't understand it. All anybody ever said was, "CUT ADVERBS," and all it ever made me want to do was use more adverbs. In high school, I was told constantly not to use the passive voice. I'm not joking now: Until my late twenties, I believed the passive voice meant a sentence that did not express aggression. Because not only did nobody ever tell me why the passive voice is bad, but they never actually told me what the passive voice even was (PV = a sentence that omits the subject, barring a prepositional phrase; it's bad because the prepositional phrase required to reveal the subject often sounds awkward, and is worse because hiding the subject in the first place demands that responsibility for the action lie with the object -- see the active "Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown" as opposed to the passive "Mike Brown was killed").

So this is all preamble to some of my favorite pieces of advice about how to maintain economy in your writing at the sentence level, which I plan to offer in each case with some semblance of an explanation. Jump the cut for more.

Adverbs

Definitely, definitely cut adverbs, but do it purposefully and not compulsively. Not all adverbs are bad. We only even have this entire class of words because they can be extremely useful on occasion. My advice about adverbs is actually twofold, and most of the time I would not cut an adverb unless I'm also changing my choice of verb. When adverbs are bad, they signal one of two things: repetition or imprecise verb choice. "She sprinted quickly" is a poor phrase because there's no other way to sprint. "She sprinted" does the same work better. "She sprinted slowly" is a bad phrase for a different reason. Since sprinting implies speed, it's a bad verb to use when you want to show somebody moving slowly. Any of "she ran," "she lumbered," "she jogged," and many other verbs would work better without requiring modification. I usually explain this one with the reverse example, actually ("She ran quickly" is better as "she sprinted;" "she ran slowly" is better as "she jogged"), but the takeaway is the same. One reason we modify verbs is because the verb we chose isn't expressive enough. If we can choose a better verb in the first place, our writing will be stronger. So use your adverbs to clue you in to redundant or imprecise writing, and revise appropriately. But if your verb is strong and your adverb is useful, leave that sucker alone.

Dropping Gaze Tags

I got this one from Janet Burroway in her eminently practical writer's guide, Writing Fiction, and the principle behind it is one that I like to apply in as many contexts as possible. One thing beginning writers do a lot is reassert a character's gaze throughout a scene, so you might get something that reads like: "Janet looked across the room and saw the table. She noticed the way the tablecloth was slightly askew, and thought about how this showed the decorator's haste. She looked over the contents of the table and saw the canyon a small finger had razed across the frosting of the birthday cake. She understood: the cloth was askew not because of the decorator's haste, but because it had been tugged down by small, eager hands."

Now, I just crapped that out, which I note only because I'm actually sort of proud of some of the writing there. But notice how often Janet's gaze or thinking is asserted: Janet looked... and saw... she noticed... and thought... she looked... and saw... she understood.... This is a kind of narrative hand-holding that betrays either a real distrust of the reader or a real distrust of the writer's ability to guide the reader. Really, though, once you've established a gaze, the reader will assume that everything which comes after is attached to that gaze, until a different gaze is established in its place. Look how much better this reads when I excise all but the initial gaze tags: "Janet looked across the room at the table, on which the tablecloth sat slightly askew. The decorator must have set the table in a hurry. No. A small canyon dug by a finger ran across the length of the birthday cake's frosting. The lopsided tablecloth was not a sign of the decorator's haste, but only that of small, eager hands."

Not only does it read better, but I've saved nearly an entire line's worth of text.

The same kind of problem comes up when people write in flashback, which requires a change in tense. Writers will often reassert the tense shift over and over rather than trust the reader to know when they are. So: "Once, when she had been a girl, Janet had done something similar. In her excitement over turning six, she had grabbed her cake from the fridge before her parents had woken up to serve everyone a special, sweet breakfast, even though she wasn't supposed to. She had dropped it on the floor, and her parents had refused to buy her another."

This one is a bit counter-intuitive because there is a lot of writing advice that demands staying consistent with our tenses. Here, we move from the simple past to the past perfect to signal the switch to a flashback, but the past perfect is a pain-in-the-butt tense that requires a bunch of extra words all the time and draws unnecessary attention to itself by being cumbersome. It just tells your reader that we're even more in the past than we were to begin with. Once your reader knows this, you're good! They're in the new time frame, and you can use the simple past again without causing any confusion. Look at how you don't even flinch at this when it's corrected: "Once, when she had been a girl, Janet did something similar. In her excitement over turning six, she grabbed her cake from the fridge before her parents woke up to serve everyone a special, sweet breakfast, even though she wasn't supposed to. She dropped it on the floor, and her parents refused to buy her another."

Dialogue Tags

Maybe the best thing that ever happened to my writing was when I got a grip on dialogue tags. Beginning writers have a lot of insecurity about dialogue tags, and it's actually a good instinct to have for the same reason that we cut adverbs. "She said" is not particularly precise, so we constantly look for better verbs to get across exactly how a character said what she did. You know the verbs we use: vociferated, ejaculated, screamed, cried, implored, whined, vituperated, exclaimed, etc., etc.

The reason this doesn't work is actually the same as the reason adverbs don't work. Adverbs modify verbs, and the need to modify a verb can signal that it's imprecise. Dialogue tags modify dialogue, and the need to modify dialogue can signal that it's imprecise. Moreover, readers aren't interested in dialogue tags. They are interested in dialogue. In fact, most readers don't even actually read the dialogue tag when you write "she said" except to identify the speaker. A cheap example, because I'm working off the top of my head, might be: "I don't like you at all," she screamed, as opposed to "I hate you!" she said. When the dialogue itself gets the meaning across adequately, the dialogue tag can afford to be as invisible as possible. (For the same reason, I try to avoid special adornments of text when I'm writing fiction, like italics for emphasis or ellipses for pauses, or even exclamation points for effect -- as much as possible I want the words themselves to create those effects; the more I have to signal them, the less precise I feel I'm being otherwise. That said, this represents me taking the principle to a bit of an extreme, and I don't hold anybody's italics against them.)

The idea of making dialogue tags as invisible as possible leads to other useful techniques. The endgame, ultimately, is just leaving dialogue tags out -- you can't get more invisible than not existing. This is great fun in scenes with only two people, because once the pattern of conversation is established, a reader can easily follow which character is speaking when just by knowing who spoke before, and all but the earliest dialogue tags are entirely unnecessary. A lot of writers also use paragraph coherence to their advantage (I don't do this very often, but I admire the technique a lot). The idea is that both the dialogue spoken and the action performed within a single paragraph are almost certainly being done by the same character. A change in paragraphs can imply a change in point of view or a change in focus, and staying with the same paragraph implies that you're staying with the same character. You can also connect the dialogue to the action to make the connection even more clear. So...

1. "I wonder which of the twins it was." Janet took the momentary peace from the hordes of children swarming around the adults' feet to spin the cake around so the fingermark faced the wall, and to straighten the tablecloth while she was at it.

Or...

2. "I wonder which of the twins it was." Janet spotted the twins among the hordes of children swarming around her feet. Little Alisha had frosting smeared across her lips where she hadn't quite licked it all away.

Common Wordiness

The last bit of advice I have for today comes straight out of the "crap I am constantly fixing in my own writing" file. Most of the common wordiness I am afflicted with has to do with demonstrating an order of events or the passing of time, or things similar. The most common by far is the compulsion to use the word "then" (or "so"). So, "This happened... then this happened... then this happened." Then isn't the only culprit. There's a whole class of words that push time forward, or provide the feeling of forward momentum, or of cause and effect. But, really, simply writing one action after another action puts them in order. The reader will know the order of events if you're just plain ordering your events sensibly to begin with. "Then" is great for dramatic emphasis. I love to use it -- probably too much -- in my chapter or scene send-offs, because it does give that little dramatic oomph right at the end, but most of the time you neither need nor want that extra oomph. You just want your reader moving forward, which she will do just fine without your extra wordy help.

Another one that's a killer for kind of a similar reason is the word "Suddenly," which is great for dramatic effect in small doses, but actually betrays itself. See: Suddenly is a long word -- three whole syllables! -- and using it actually delays the thing that is supposed to be happening. So when you write "suddenly," the thing that is happening actually, literally, happens less suddenly. Oh, and don't get me started on "all of a/the sudden." So many words. What is "a sudden" to begin with? Is it "a sudden" or "the sudden"? Why not just say, "suddenly"? For the love of everything...  Ugh.

Okay. I'm over it. I am. I'm over it.

And, I think that's all. I had a whole thing ready to talk about "also... as well" constructions, which drive me absolutely nutty, but it's an obvious redundancy once you start noticing it. So, yeah, I'm done here.

These have been my favorite crafty things, to help get that sentence-level writing nice and smooth!