Tighten Your Prose

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kentagions
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Tighten Your Prose

Postby kentagions » Sun Dec 18, 2016 1:13 am

We often hear this phrase in workshops. Experienced writers demand it of emerging writers. What is it? How is it done?

Please explain to the class what it means to you or how you do it. Give an example.

Elimination of excessive words: of the. "Of the" has plagued me. When it implies possession, I replace it with an apostrophe s after the noun. 'The end of the year,' becomes, 'year's end.'

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disgruntledpeony
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby disgruntledpeony » Sun Dec 18, 2016 4:50 am

Tightening up the prose is usually my final step once I've got the building blocks of the story set. I work on it with each draft after the first, but I make sure to do a final pass after I've solidified all my major plot points and character arcs. For me, that means printing the story out, having a member of the household read the story aloud (preferably a cold reading, but it doesn't have to be), taking notes, and moving on from there.

Obviously, cutting out unnecessary words is a goal (for example, '[character] began to [action]' kept cropping up in my latest story, when '[character acted]' would do perfectly well). I try to ensure that my descriptions flow well and that my characters' thoughts and emotions are represented on the page. (This is also where I make sure dialect is appropriately represented.)
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Ishmael
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby Ishmael » Sun Dec 18, 2016 10:24 am

This first came to my attention when a fellow forumite pointed out how addicted I was to the word 'that'. Although there are circumstances where it must be used, there are many others where it adds nothing at all and can just be deleted.

Ishmael decided that he used the word that too often.
Ishmael decided he used the word that too often.

There is a fair bit of advice available for tightening your prose. Here's one.
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MattDovey
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby MattDovey » Mon Dec 19, 2016 3:32 am

Stephen King recommends cutting 10% of your prose in your final pass (in On Writing). I scoffed when I first read that. "Surely not! Every word I lay down is a perfect and necessary jewel in the crown of my prose."

Nonsense. My initial revisions usually add to word count as I layer the senses in and describe things more clearly and close off plot holes, but for the final prose-only pass, you'd be amazed what you can actually strip out. Simplify verb phrases (e.g. disgruntledpeony's "beginning to act") and take out filtering verbs (realised, thought, decided--those are all things you can imply by just showing), use specific details to imply others, take out unnecessary asides...

Try writing for FFO or Nature, with their strict word limits. You'll soon realise just how much you can cut out when you need to, even if it sometimes takes two or three passes--and you'll spot stuff on that third pass, when you still haven't made it under word count, that you'll wonder how you ever missed such an inefficient phrasing.

Here's a recent example, an excerpt from something I've got under sub at Nature (so please don't share the link further--the piece is unpublished). On the left is draft 1, and this section adds up to 199 words; on the right is the second draft, at 179. Exactly 10% cut, and I managed to get a couple of extra details in as well--I cut enough that I could afford to add something new in. (Sorry for the weird text wrapping on that site, but you get the idea.)

Also: learn which phrases you lean on. I overuse just and only at criminal levels, and if I do a Ctrl+F for them, 90% can be deleted outright. Some people have characters gasping or nodding or smiling all the time. We all have our crutches, you gotta learn what your own is wotf008 (fun game: see if you can spot the unnecessary just in this very post... Image)
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Dustin Adams
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby Dustin Adams » Mon Dec 19, 2016 8:34 am

I find that most of my tightening comes from eliminating words at the end of a sentence that don't need to be there.
Or, I suppose
I eliminate unnecessary words at the ends of my sentences.

"Where are they?"
"I don't know, they should have been here by now."

By now. Yeah, that's implied.
Stuff like that.
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Ishmael
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby Ishmael » Mon Dec 19, 2016 9:19 am

1. Avoid repetitive naming of the viewpoint character - Once we've established that Ishmael is the point of view character we will seldom need reminding.

2. This does not necessarily mean that you just use the word 'he' instead.

3. In fact you may not even need to specify the sense by which he detects an object, because it's clearly implied.

Ishmael could just discern the smell of fish and chips on the night air.

Okay, he could or he couldn't. As Matt says, the 'just' is redundant. Moreover the 'could' is redundant too, because if he did, it follows that he could.

He smelled frying fish.

Okay, but if you're going to refer to the POV indirectly every time he notices anything you're going to have an awful lot of 'he'

Someone nearby was frying fish.

Now there is no way this could be detected but by smell and unless we've accidentally switched viewpoint there's no-one else to detect it, so for me this is the best formulation of the three.
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disgruntledpeony
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby disgruntledpeony » Mon Dec 19, 2016 11:20 am

My only problem with that last example is that it's a vague statement. It might be better to give more sensory detail. Perhaps something like this:

The scent of fried cod hung in the air.
If a person offend you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. ~ Mark Twain
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amoskalik
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby amoskalik » Tue Dec 20, 2016 5:47 am

disgruntledpeony wrote:My only problem with that last example is that it's a vague statement. It might be better to give more sensory detail. Perhaps something like this:

The scent of fried cod hung in the air.


Of course that would depend on the character and the circumstances. Someone hungry might observe:
Battered cod lent its seductive savor to the night air.

while someone nauseous might observe:
The night air coated everything with its fishy stench.
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Ishmael
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby Ishmael » Tue Dec 20, 2016 7:26 am

My reason for excluding the 'night air' was (unstated) context. We probably already know it's night. Nights commonly have air. Scent is transmitted by air. If there isn't any air then smell is the least of his deficiencies.

I defy anyone to distinguish the smell of frying cod from that of haddock or plaice. The smell derives from the interaction of heated batter and fat and the batter and fat are common to all three.

On the other hand the smell doesn't travel a great distance and the cod doesn't fry itself, hence I chose to retain "Someone nearby."

Now if it had been a brewery, the smell would be travelling a mile or more and a chipboard factory can be smelled several miles away and is repulsive. Likewise the state of the POV character may well be relevant.

When it is relevant to the story we may add detail. I know DF longs to know whether the bird's cry emanates from a raven or a buzzard. The cod may be another kettle of fish.
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J'nae Rae
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby J'nae Rae » Tue Dec 20, 2016 8:19 am

The scent of deep fried fish wafted on the breeze.

More descriptive, and more in line with fish and chips., Pan fried fish would smell different than battered fish lowered into oil.
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J'nae Rae
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby J'nae Rae » Tue Dec 20, 2016 8:36 am

amoskalik wrote:Of course that would depend on the character and the circumstances. Someone hungry might observe:
Battered cod lent its seductive savor to the night air.

while someone nauseous might observe:
The night air coated everything with its fishy stench.



Hungary: The scent of battered fish wafted by.

Nauseous: Fish and scorched oil permeated the area.
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amoskalik
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby amoskalik » Tue Dec 20, 2016 9:43 am

All the fish examples given are valid ones. I only wish to point out that one way to tighten prose is to have your words serve double, triple, or quadruple duty whenever possible. Don't just describe the setting or the character or the backstory or move the plot forward, do all four:

A wayward breeze inspired memories of Grandma Kat grilling fish and sent me reeling toward the nearest john.
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kentagions
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby kentagions » Tue Dec 20, 2016 3:49 pm

Redundancy within paragraphs.

When I write, I just go. Whether from a detailed outline in hand or a sketchy outline in head, there is a scene to write and I write it. Looking back slows me down. During the first editing pass, then, there are a number of paragraphs that have redundant or heavily overlapping sentences.

Eliminating redundancies and merging overlapping ideas accounts for over fifty percent of the reduction in that first editing pass. Sometimes a sentence illustrates an idea broadly and a following sentence clarifies it, these are perfect places for reduction, because the specific often implies the general.

BTW Ishmael, isn't 'fishy' a sound?

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Ishmael
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Re: Tighten Your Prose

Postby Ishmael » Wed Dec 21, 2016 5:27 am

kentagions wrote:BTW Ishmael, isn't 'fishy' a sound?


That sounds very fishy. I may lose my plaice occasionally but my sole porpoise here is the avoidance of flounder-ing.
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