Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Saying More With Few Words

My editor and author of Love AllKelly Hashway is here today to talk about using few words to say so much more.

One of the best compliments I've gotten from an editor is that I can give maximum insight into my characters with the fewest words possible. You may not think that when you have an entire novel this is necessary, but consider how many times you've skimmed paragraphs while reading a book. I do it all the time. I'm not a wordy person. I'm pretty blunt, and that's really helpful when you're writing because readers want you to get to the point.

The biggest issue I notice when I edit books, both for clients and myself, is that when we draft, we tend to just get the words down on paper (or screen). There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Drafting is about getting the story out. Tightening up your wording should be left for revisions. The problem lies in the fact that when we simply write to get the story out, we don't think about the best way to say something. And by best, I mean the most specific and the most clear to the reader. Why does this happen? Think about this. You know your story and your characters. They are clear as day in your mind. But what we often forget is that our readers know nothing until we show them. Notice I said show, not tell. So here are a few tips to help you.

A great way to say more with fewer words is to let your characters speak. Use dialogue. 

Look at this example:

Roger was as nosey as neighbors come. He was always looking over my shoulder while I carried the bills into the house, trying to figure out just how far in debt we'd gotten. He knew our finances better than Mom did, and he made sure we knew it.  (48 words)

The above is all telling. We don't see any evidence of this. And if you're thinking of now showing this scene, you are just telling your reader what they already know. Show and Tell was strictly for elementary school. Don't bring it into your writing.

Now look at that same narration told as dialogue:

"Hmm, more bills, huh?" Roger said, watching me pull the mail from the box.
"Everyone has them." 
"Some more than others, I see. Your mortgage is due this time of month, too." (32 words)

From this dialogue, we know Roger is nosey, and he obviously knows a lot about their finances since he knows when their mortgage is due. Even the MC's three-word line comes across as a little defensive, showing her annoyance and implying that Roger's done this before. When you have the option to tell your reader something in narration or to show them in dialogue, more often than not, it's more effective to show.

Going back to using specific words, I'm talking about falling in love with verbs. Opt for specific verbs that clearly make your reader picture what your character is saying or doing.

Here are some examples:

"Go and see if you can get her to come with us."

It's not a long sentence by any means, but don't let that fool you. There are still too many unnecessary words. 

Here's how I would edit this:

"Try to convince her to come."

"Go and see" really means "try". Try is a specific verb as opposed to the three words previously used. Also, the use of "and" was not needed at all. "Go see" would've worked.
"Can get" isn't strong language. "Convince" is more accurate, and it's a much more powerful verb.

I also see writers using "ing" verbs a lot. This is weak writing, and it adds to your word count. Check out this example:

Noelle was wearing...

Again, it's only three words, but it's actually too many. It should read:

Noelle wore...

"Was" is a "be" verb. (Forms of "to be" are: is, am, was, were, are.) Be verbs are also signs of weak writing. If you can eliminate them, you are cutting down on unnecessary words and making your writing stronger at the same time.

Verbs can be your best friends because they eliminate the need for adverbs—you know, the dreaded adverbs that everyone says not to use in your manuscript. Don't tell your reader that your character said something "loudly". Instead have them scream, yell, or just use an exclamation point. Adverbs are almost never needed if you use specific verbs and appropriate punctuation.

See what I mean in these examples:

"You've got to be kidding me," I said, loudly.
"You've got to be kidding me," I screamed.
"You've got to be kidding me!"

Personally, the third one is the strongest. The exclamation point eliminates the need for the adverb and even the verb.

Another thing to watch for is telling every single move your character makes. We don't need to see your character's every action because many can be inferred. Readers don't like to be talked down to, so let them assume the obvious things on their own.

Here's what I mean:

She walked to the dresser, opened the drawer, and searched for her black sweater.

Now if your character is sitting on her bed, it's fine to have her jump up before she searches for her sweater. In fact, that's a good transition. But do we really need to see her walk to the dresser and open the drawer? If she searches the drawer, can't we assume she opened it?

Here's how I would write it:
She scoured her dresser in search of her black sweater.

First, scour implies that she's a bit frantic so it tells your reader about how your character is feeling as well as what she is doing. Words that can give more insight into your character without adding to your word count are invaluable. And look how this edit cuts down on unnecessary words. It even sounds better.

So those are a few tips to help you say more with fewer words. Hopefully you found them helpful.


  1. That's always the challenge, isn't it? Choosing the right words and putting them in order, so they say exactly what you want and do it effectively!

  2. Great post, ladies. Those 'ing' verbs always slip into my drafts. :)

  3. Kelly and Beth this is a great reminder because how ofter we forget and take the easy route. Thanks for the great post.

  4. I found the nosy neighbor "showing" example open to interpretation. Perhaps he's not nosy but just concerned. Perhaps he's just lonely and likes to talk about anything. Perhaps his comments don't upset the narrator because the neighbor rarely does it. None of that is clear. "Show don't tell" is a fallacy. Unless you "tell" the character's inner thought-reactions to things, no one will know exactly what s/he is feeling about what transpires or, more importantly, why. While showing is important, telling is equally so.

    1. I agree that there has to be some telling for a manuscript to work, but I do think showing is important. It makes our writing more vivid.

  5. I like the last example best, and they are all good! The use of precise, strong verbs is important, and wordy sentences are annoying. That said, not everything can be evoked through dialog. Sometimes a paragraph of powerful exposition is the answer.

  6. This is a fantastic post! Thanks Kelly.