Monday 20 April 2020

Writers’ Questions: Which words should I cut from my novel?

With my own debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, being published by Atria Books this August, in my Writers’ Questions series, I’ve been answering burning questions from aspiring writers. For example, I’ve covered how to write a query letter, finding the time to write, and attempting the dreaded outline.

This week I’m diving into writing craft, with an opinionated, and definitely not scientific, list of the words I suggest deleting from your work in progress novel.

Some caveats before I dive in:
This blog post is informed by my personal taste—yours may vary.

I’m not saying I adhere to these guidelines 100% of the time, or that there aren’t successful writers who take a very different approach.

In my own writing, I don’t apply all of these ‘rules’ to dialogue. Why? Well, a character being vague, long-winded or bad at constructing sentences could be part of their personality. Because I write historical fiction, using more old-fashioned prose for dialogue than for narration can also give a more a period feel.

Thought Verbs:
I did a whole blog post on this topic already, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but if you’re writing in first person or a close third point of view, verbs like ‘think’, ‘realise’, ‘feel’, and ‘notice’ will weaken your prose and make readers feel more distant from your viewpoint character(s). Instead of ‘I noticed the door was open’, try just ‘the door was open’. It will put us inside your character’s head.

Is there any word more detrimental to creating surprise and drama in fiction than ‘suddenly’? Adverbs overall have a bad reputation when it comes to modern tastes in creative writing, and for me ‘suddenly’ is the most egregious. Consider which is more striking: ‘the door flew open’ or ‘suddenly the door flew open’? I know which option I’d prefer.

I’m not sure if this one is just me, but my writers’ groups have suffered through my rants about the word ‘bit’ and now you get to too! When used to describe a tangible object, the word ‘bit’ is abstract, and a noun that’s more concrete will do its job better. For instance, a ‘bit of fabric’ could be of any size or condition, but a ‘rag’ gives us a clearer picture. A ‘bit of rouge’ could be a ‘dab of rouge’, which conjures up the motion of a character applying the product to her cheeks.

‘Bit’ is also used in the construction ‘a bit [adjective]’ e.g. ‘a bit tired’ or ‘a bit angry’. Here, ‘bit’ is bad as it shows a lack of commitment to the idea from the writer, which could indicate a lack of narrative confidence, and because it is often a flag for telling vs. showing. Don’t tell me a character is a bit angry—show me the extent of her anger through her actions.

Weird Dialogue Tags:
Look, I’m a lover of Victorian literature. See the title and theme of this very blog! I grew up on a diet of books in which characters were always ‘admonishing’, ‘declaring’ and ‘ejaculating’ (no, not in that way). But tastes have shifted and using weird dialogue tags today reads as old-fashioned or, worse, patronising towards readers. The content of the dialogue should already give us a pretty good sense of how it is said. Personally, I try to stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’, with the occasional ‘whispered’ and the even rarer ‘cried’.

If you’re also a writer, I’d love to hear which words get the cut when you’re editing your work. And if my suggestions have stirred up strong feelings, I’d love to hear your thoughts either way. Tweet me @SVictorianist, or let me know via Instagram or Facebook

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