by C. Lill Ahrens
The old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees” can be a metaphor for wordy writing. Too many extra words obscure the view of your story.
In contrast to “cutting,” (the deletion of an entire subplot, minor character, etc.), “tightening” is a delicate and complex process. Its goal is to convey your story information (visual imagery, backstory, action etc.) with fewer words and greater clarity. Tight writing is not a style, it’s what successful writers have in common. Tight writing is strong writing.
I invented my Tighty Writey Game to reduce a 2,000 word story to a contest’s 1,500 word limit. The game made the tightening process fun. It also worked: The story won first place.
“Tight writing is not a style, it’s what successful writers have in common. Tight writing is strong writing.”
Below are examples of tightening, followed by the step-by-step rules of The Tighty Writey Game.
Tightening Opportunities (“=” means “can be tightened to”)
- Nouns that can be verbs: She held the belief = She believed.
- Verbs that require adverbs: He walked slowly = He trudged, or He meandered, etc.
- Action that can be simplified: Carrying a weasel in his arms, he lowered himself onto the park bench next to her. She reached for her purse and grabbed hold of it = Cradling a weasel, he sat on the park bench next to her. She clutched her purse.
- Superfluous, tensionless dialog: “Hi.” he said, “My name is Ted, how are you?” “I’m fine,” she said, “My name is Alice” = Ted and Alice introduced themselves.
- Backstory/backfill with unnecessary details: As a child, Alice had lived on the seashore, then a few years ago she’d been wronged by a weasel = She’d once been wronged by a weasel.
- Unneeded “that” : She thought that Ted’s weasel was untrustworthy = She thought Ted’s weasel was untrustworthy.
- Unneeded “was”: She thought Ted’s weasel was untrustworthy = She thought Ted’s weasel untrustworthy.
- Unnecessary Description: Her eyes, situated under her eyebrows, were glaring at his weasel. = She glared at his weasel.
- Words you can contract or hyphenate: Ted did not trust women who were wary of weasels = Ted didn’t trust weasel-wary women.
- Negatives you can state “positively”: Ted didn’t trust weasel-wary women = Ted distrusted weasel-wary women.
- Redundancies: “Watch out!” Ted yelled the warning. = “Watch out!” Ted yelled.
- Passive construction that can be active: She was pounced on by the weasel = The weasel pounced on her.
- Unneeded prepositions: The weasel snatched the purse from off of her lap and disappeared down into a hole in the ground. = The weasel snatched the purse from her lap and disappeared down a hole in the ground.
- Two sentences (and paragraphs) that can be combined into one: This story is very silly. At least writing it didn’t harm any weasels = No weasels were harmed in the writing of this silly story.
Step-by-Step Rules to Lill’s Tighty Writey Game
- Tighten only your “final” draft. Tightening an early draft wastes time and can hamper your creativity.
- Before starting, note your word count. The fun part of this game is watching the numbers go down, kind of like the fun part of dieting. The unfun part of the game is the temporary loss of voice and rhythm. Don’t worry – your voice and rhythm will return at game’s end. (see last step)
- Starting with your first paragraph, challenge yourself to convey all the story information in that paragraph with fewer words. If you can’t tighten the paragraph at all, that’s okay; it’s just the first paragraph.
- Continue tightening each paragraph, in order. Chronological tightening helps you find redundant story information.
- When you reach the end of your piece, note your word count again. No matter how little you’ve reduced it, congratulate yourself; This was just round one.
- Return to the start. The second time through will be even more fun because of surprising new tightening opportunities. To help yourself find them, this time focus sentence by sentence. You may discover a whole sentence that’s no longer needed, or even two paragraphs that can now be tightened into one. The word count is melting away!
- Keep repeating step 6, until you reach your word-count goal. Better yet, go under the goal to give yourself room in the next step. Of course, sometimes a plot is so complex you can’t reach the goal. But the exercise has been worth it, because your writing is stronger; your words are working hard. Now you can play the really fun part of the game: the last step.
- Read your tightened story aloud to yourself and enjoy revising for rhythm and voice. During the process the word count will bob up and down a bit. When you like your rhythm and voice – and your word count is good – you are done! Your readers can see your forest clearly,for now there are fewer trees.
Further activities from C. Lill Ahrens
- Think of more tightening opportunities and add them to the “opportunities” list.
- See if you can tighten this article. If you can, please email me. I’m sure I missed tightening something. firstname.lastname@example.org
From the book in progress: Creating a Movie in Your Reader’s Mind: Self-editing for Prose Writers by C. Lill Ahrens.
ABOUT C. LILL AHRENS
C. Lill Ahrens is an editor for Calyx Journal, the contest director for Oregon Writers Colony, a writing conference speaker, creative writing teacher, and editorial consultant. Many of her students and clients win contests and get published. Lill’s own award-winning stories are published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Best Women’s Travel Writing (Travelers Tales). CLillAhrens.com