Over-writing: how to get rid of excess weight

Scottish author/agent Allan Guthrie calls unnecessary words pleonasms and gives us tips on how to avoid them. He’s referring to writing that contains words that are redundant or implicit and therefore should be cut.  Personally, I call it over-writing, since ‘pleonasm’ reminds me, for some reason, of dissecting pig embryos in the tenth grade. I keep getting it confused with ‘neoplasm.’

Cutting out the excess baggage in your writing adds strength. It makes your writing firmer, more polished, and more confident. 

The culprits are often adjectives. “The cannon boomed loudly” may seem fine but it’s implicit that ‘booms’ are loud. “The cannon boomed” is tighter.

“Wet tears spilled down her cheeks.” Yes, of course, they did. Tears are wet. Cut the ‘wet’ and the sentence is stronger.

One that I find myself slipping into my writing frequently is the word ‘just.’ “I was just there,” my character might say (before I start the edits). “I had just talked to him. He had just got out of jail.” 

If I talked to someone, I must have been there. 

“I talked to him. They released him from jail an hour ago,” is not only more descriptive but taut. 

Note also that in this last example,  I’ve removed ‘had’ altogether from the sentence, “I had just talked to him.” You don’t need it. The past tense is implicit. If you do need to use ‘had’ to set the time context of a series of actions, use it once and then lose it. Even in backstory.

For example, I often read something like this: “He had met her at a bar in Mexico. They had spent the night drinking and talking about the war. They had gone back to his hotel room…”   

One ‘had’ is sufficient to establish that the event took place in the past.  Much better: “He had met her at a bar in Mexico. They spent the night drinking. They went back to his hotel room.”  (Of course, they ‘staggered’ back to his hotel room would be even stronger.)

Some of these redundancies creep into common usage.  In Canada, a ‘hot water heater’ is what we call that thing in the basement, even though it should be obvious that if water is heated, it is hot. If you are writing a mystery that involves a hot water heater, you might be able to pull it off. Otherwise, those kind of redundancies should be avoided.

I don’t agree with all of Allan’s examples of over-writing.  Sometimes, particularly in dialogue, it adds a colloquial touch. But generally, he’s right. 

I’ve used several ‘pleonasms’ in this blog already: “Personally, I …” “and therefore should…” are examples. Anything I think is personal to me. And ‘therefore’ is a relic of the days when lawyers got paid by the word instead of the hour. After 30 years as a lawyer, it creeps into my writing. But I don’t think these things detract in a blog, whereas (see? there I go again. Lawyer talk.) they detract from a manuscript for sure.

Take the following common example listed in Allan’s tips.  “He was scared. He’d never felt this kind of fear before. The terror was overwhelming.”

I agree completely with Allan. Pick one of these three sentences and cut the rest. Otherwise, you might as well have a header that says “I’m an amateur writer. Please save the environment by recycling this submission.”

In my post on Dialogue Tags, I also recommend cutting words like snarled, hissed, rasped, demanded, insisted, etc. and replacing them with ‘said.’  You can get away with the occasional use of a dialogue tag, but if it isn’t necessary, it’s another neoplasm, according to Allan. Or pleonasm. Whatever. You know what I mean.

If you’ve heard from an agent that your manuscript isn’t polished enough, trust me, this is what they’re criticizing. They won’t read further to see if your plot works or not; they’ll reject it based on these mistakes alone.

My advice: look at your manuscript closely. Strike out every single word that you don’t absolutely need. When you’re finished, do it again. And again.

And cut out all that snarling and rasping, will you? The result will be a tighter, firmer story. And not a single moment required at the gymn.

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