Next time I plant radishes, I’ll sow the seeds more thinly. But I’m new at growing vegetables. So I just sort of dumped them. Ten rainy days later, they had become a gorgeous green mass, as luxuriant as ground cover. Unfortunately, they need room to grow as big as, well, radishes. The seed packet says to thin them to two inches apart. So today I went out in the rain and did just that, getting muddy and feeling like a bad-ass. I had to take out more than I could leave, but the sprouts I aborted will add a spicy bite to tonight’s salad.
What does any of this have to do with revisions? Not much, except that thinning my radishes was my reward for sending my latest set of revisions back to my agent. Also, after I’d finished tackling some biggish issues in the story (Where is the ghost now? Who’s talking? Is that sex consensual, or rape?), I went through the text at a micro level and tightened a lot of the language. That is, I thinned out a bunch of verbiage that was clogging up the story.
Here, for you list fans, are 5 (five!) types of excess verbiage I eliminated. The sentences are from my book, but if you’re a writer, you could probably find similar examples in your own work.
I am not a member of the We Hate Adverbs Club. I kinda like them, in fact. Parts of my book are lavishly embellished with them. But those parts are written in a voice that is deliberately baroque. In the parts of the book where the writing is more simple, adverbs can just clog up the works. So, for example,
“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted, ” Betsy goes on conversationally.
should probably become
“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted, ” Betsy goes on.
“What’s a dialogue tag?” you ask.
“It’s the little bit of verbiage that’s attached to a line of dialogue and tells you who’s speaking,” I say.
“And you want to eliminate them?” you ask.
“Not all of them. Just the unnecessary ones,” I say.
“But aren’t they always necessary?” you ask. “If you don’t have them, won’t you get confused about who’s speaking?”
Come to think of it, in my first example, there are only two people in the conversation, and it’s obvious from context who would say what. The sentence above should probably read,
“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted. ”
3.Telling and showing
You know the line, right? “Show, don’t tell.” It means that it’s better to demonstrate a character’s motives or feelings or whatever through dialogue or action than by explaining. I get that, and I’m pretty good at showing. I also have a tendency to tell as well as show. (My husband will confirm that I don’t just do this in my writing. I’ll say, “Monday is Memorial Day.” And then I’ll add, “So we shouldn’t put out the recycling Sunday night.” And then I’ll feel compelled to explain, “Because the town doesn’t pick up recycling on national holidays. And Memorial Day is a national holiday. So we should wait and put it out on Monday night.” It’s a wonder we’re still married.)
Here’s how it works in my writing:
Laurel hesitates, letting the bristles prick her fingers as she remembers all the times Mouse brushed her knotted hair.
Well, sure she hesitates. You can see that in what she does while she hesitates. That sentence might be stronger this way:
Laurel lets the bristles prick her fingers as she remembers all the times Mouse brushed her knotted hair.
4.Too many sub-actions
This is sort of like #3. It seems I’m not content to get the character out of the car. I have to document each step in the procedure – grabbing the door handle, pulling it forward, pushing the door out, putting one leg on the ground, etc. Okay. I’m exaggerating. But how about this?
Neil steps forward with a grateful smile, his hand raised like a kid asking to be called on in class.
Unless the individual steps show something important (fingers fumbling, a fist swinging harder than intended, something spilling), why not just say what happens?
Neil raises his hand like a kid asking to be called on in class.
5.Too many examples
I managed to keep this list to just five items, but my natural tendency is to include every last thing that comes to mind. The house in my book is based on the house where I grew up. After my mother died in 1999, the house was sold. Setting my book there let me spend more time in a place I loved and missed. As I looked around the rooms in my mind, remembering more and more details, I had trouble not writing down every last paperclip and dust bunny. When I was revising, I spent a lot of time pondering sentences like this one:
Fringed cowboy vests and crushed plastic firefighter helmets and slippery skeleton suits spill from the costume box.
Could I have lost one of those details? Maybe. In this case, I kept them all.
How was it that after going over this book a billion times, I still found things to fix? Maybe it’s the advantage of having more distance. Maybe I’ve become a better writer. Or maybe the passages I fixed were newer material, which hadn’t gone through as many rewrites as the rest. In lots of cases, I was taking out things I’d put in as I figured out what was happening. Maybe those excess words are the extra seeds you sow, because until they sprout, you don’t know which ones you’ll keep, and which you’ll end up thinning out.