Do you like flying on airplanes? I don’t. The heights make my stomach churn and my skin turn greener. The worst part is that ominous feeling of going bankrupt because I know that every extra sentence I pack is going to cost me ten bookmarks (that’s like ten dollars in human terms).
You humans may not have to worry about this expense, but extra baggage will cost you one way or another. Keeping that luggage will only show the world that you have an empty head and will result in empty pockets (which will inevitably result in empty stomachs).
Why Less is Better
How many of you have packed something you didn’t need? Do you really need to bring that electric fly swatter? Or what about those swim trunks you dragged along on your trip to Alaska? All of us have the tendency to pack our suitcases—and books—with unnecessary junk. But what we don’t realize is that overpacking your book is just as dangerous as underpacking.
If you never showed your writing to anyone else, I suppose it wouldn’t matter how much you overstuffed it. You’d be the only person suffering. But if you intend to ship it to the publishers, you’ll find it weighs down the plane for you, your characters, and your readers. Every scene, paragraph, sentence, and word needs to have value. Otherwise, you’re wasting readers’ time. Time is precious and we have to use every minute wisely until extinction. The average dinosaur reads about three words per second. So if you write six thousand useless words, you’re wasting two thousand seconds of your readers’ day (two thousand seconds equals roughly half an hour). Do you know how many other things your readers could be doing in that time?
Keeping our eyes on the word count makes us forget this and causes us to pound out another five thousand words without bothering to ask ourselves: Are those five thousand words necessary?
Wouldn’t it be better to write sixty thousand meaningful words than ninety thousand meaningless ones?
Besides being wasteful, extra baggage also hides the essentials, turning your book into a cluttered mess where nobody can find anything except some unmatched socks. Your book may have a powerful theme, but readers will never find it, because they’ll have to wade through all the gunk. We need “to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak,” as Hans Hofmann says.
Overpacking weakens the clasp of your book too. Sometimes sitting on it can make it snap closed (especially when you’re a four-ton theropod like me), but eventually it will jostle back open and spill the contents everywhere. The surest, quickest way to strengthen your writing is by ripping out the excess, because less words equals more space for your theme to move around in readers’ minds.
Here. I’ll let you decide which is stronger: Wordiness kills sentences. Or, too many words and phases will kill all of your sentences.
Now that I’ve given you a healthy dose of heartburn from worrying about your excessive writing habits, let me relieve that stress by showing you how to jettison your baggage to keep the plane from crashing.
1. Pointless Scenes & Chitchat
The bulkiest weights we carry are entire scenes. Sometimes we write whole paragraphs or chapters on essentially nothing. The worst part is that the whole time we’re writing this nothing, we think it is quite something and hence it gets tucked away with the necessary contents.
How do we distinguish the nothing from something? Firstly, does your scene have a goal (whether external or internal)? I’ll give you a tip: if you can’t find one, your readers won’t either. Does the scene reveal anything about the characters (emotionally, personally, or physically)? Does the scene offer any pertinent information to the story? What is the purpose of the scene? How will it affect the rest of the story if you cut it out? If removing the scene offers no visible change to the plot, you need to hack it off. What if there’s some necessary tidbits mixed in with the unnecessary? Take those tidbits and sprinkle them elsewhere in the book.
For example, in the senseless scene your character is stomping through the rainforest (unnecessary baggage) and recollects being terrorized by Tyrannosauruses as a hatchling (necessary information). Cut the leisurely walk and slip the necessary information into the chapter where he finds tyrannosaurus tracks next to his nest.
Pointless scenes often lead to pointless dialogue and sometimes even the important scenes become entangled by it. Chitchat is a common part of life, but it should not be a common part of your book. Because, unless your book is a song and your character a cucumber, it is not acceptable for you to spend half a page describing your character’s eternal love of cheeseburgers. Dialogue is just as important as your character’s actions. Everything said should either connect to the plot or deepen readers’ understanding of the characters and their world.
Lack of emotion, action, and showing with lots of talking and telling, are a few of chitchat’s symptoms. It usually consists of talking about something that happened (which isn’t necessary because you’ve already shown the event) or everyday matters (which isn’t important because books are rarely about everyday occurrences).
Also, beware of mind chatter. It’s essentially the same as chitchat except it shows up in characters’ thoughts. It involves thinking about unimportant details or stating the obvious with exclamations such as, “Isn’t it such a wonderful day?”
But what about a comical scene and dialogue that has no purpose? Should those be cut too? Not always. Humorous happenings add flavor to a story and they do have a purpose. To entertain. Extra baggage does nothing except give readers indigestion. Technically, the super suit scene in The Incredibles wasn’t necessary. But it wasn’t excess baggage because the scene had a goal (find the super suit), conflict (a wife who wouldn’t give him the super suit), and action (a robot bombing the city).
2. Adverbs, Adjectives, & Overdone Descriptions
It’s those little adjectives and adverbs that ultimately make your book overflow out of the suitcase. Purple prose, as writers like to call it, poses several traveling hazards. Firstly, it annoys the publisher, secondly it annoys readers, and thirdly it annoys you because it made everyone annoyed at you. And the reason everyone got annoyed in the first place is that you were too busy showing off your skills by overwriting.
Descriptions vivify scenes in readers’ minds, but some writers write so vividly it’s as if they suspect their readers are martians who’ve never set foot on earth and have no idea what a ketchup bottle looks like. Take this scene for instance:
Berfurd peered up at the brilliant blue sky, watching the wispy white clouds float by like a herd of sauropods in a river. He sighed, wishing he were a pterodactyl rather than a triceratops. He laid down on the tall, green grass and let the sunlight soak into his skin as pentaceratops and stegosauruses fed on the grass nearby.
There’s enough waste in that description to sink the titanic. Let’s try this version:
Berfurd watched the wispy clouds float across the blue sky like a herd of sauropods in a river. He sighed, wishing he were a pterodactyl rather than a triceratops. He laid on the tall grass and basked in the sunlight as pentaceratops and stegosauruses grazed nearby.
I eliminated fourteen words without changing the meaning. One stronger verb is always better than ten adverbs that nobody can pronounce. Likewise, adjectives should be used selectively. Many times readers can envision what you’re writing about without you expressly stating the height, color, and weight of every object in the room. For example, I originally wrote “white clouds” and “green grass.” Now, unless the grass were purple and the clouds neon yellow, inductive reasoning will naturally lead readers to assume the colors of said objects to be green and white. Imagine your story as a coloring book. It’s your job to sketch the pictures while letting readers fill in the blanks.
3. Wordiness & Repetition
“To know how to produce a work of art is to know how to discard the extraneous” Laura Esquivel said. I’ve told you to employ adverbs and adjectives sparingly, but wordiness is much more than that. It includes nouns, verbs, pronouns, and every word of the English language. But that’s precisely the point—it uses every word when it should be using just a few.
Wordiness takes the roundabout way of getting to the point. It’s like saying how “a raptor picked up a hunk of meat, put it up to his mouth, and chewed it” when you could have simply put “the raptor ate it.” Sometimes it’s saying “right here, right now” when it’s better to say “here and now.” It’s adding words like “really or “very” when the sentence could have stood alone.
You aren’t being paid by the word, so stop acting like it. Instead of seeing how many words you can cram into a sentence, challenge yourself to make it as short as possible (sentences should be under thirty-six words). Generally, simplicity is better. That doesn’t mean you must state the facts in the plainest, shortest way possible; it should be clear and interesting. For example, “In the createtus period, lots of Authorosauruses drink an innumerable amount of ink on a daily basis” can be shortened to “many createtus Authorosauruses guzzle gallons of ink daily” while still sounding imaginative.
Another offshoot of wordiness is repetition. If you’ve shown your readers that Berfurd hates liverwurst, rest assured that they don’t need reminded of it in the next paragraph—or the next page—probably not even in the next chapter. And you don’t need to write “my book offers lots of great repetitive advice and many other great tips in my book.” Your readers aren’t Dory. They do not suffer from short-term memory loss. It’s more than sufficient to say “my book offers lots of repetitive advice.”
However, not all repetition is that easy to spot since sometimes it cloaks itself in different wording. For instance, “Repetition repeats itself and disgruntles readers. It echoes throughout your sentences, leaving readers unhappy.” Both sentences are essentially saying the same thing—keep one and leave the other for the pterodactyls.
Don’t make the same mistake I did and pack your book so full that the flight attendant makes you jump off the plane (which isn’t good when your arms are too short for swimming).