This month’s hints and tips is about the part of the editing process I hate most: deleting words! Personally I think writers can be divided into two categories – and it’s not early birds versus night owls or people who thrive on deadlines versus those who panic – it’s writers who over-write and those who under-write. I’m definitely one of the latter. I can have a whole book wrapped up and finished with 20,000 words to spare so, honestly, I might not be the best person to give this advice, but here goes anyway…

How to delete words…

One of the most famous pieces of writing advice is: ‘kill your darlings‘. It often gets attributed to Stephen King (and he does elaborate on it in On Writing), but the phrase ‘murder your darlings’  originated with the Cornish novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (he who published under the awesome pseudonym of Q). It sounds brutal and it is, whether you’re an over-writer faced with cutting tens of thousands of words or an under-writer who can’t bear to lose any precious paragraph. When you’ve put hours of work into a story, losing any part of it is hard, but before hitting send on your MS it’s important to step back, try to look at your work objectively and delete anything you don’t need. No matter how much you loved those words or how proud you are of them, if they don’t need to be there, you have to cut. And then maybe cry.

So what should be deleted? Unfortunately as writers we get so close to our work that we lose the ability to judge it properly and spot errors. I’ve found mistakes in all of my books which I should have noticed (and had about a thousand chances to fix), so here are a few things to remember.

  • There are some words that most of us over-use. ‘Just’ is probably the most notorious, but we all have at least one verbal tic (my editor recently pointed out 68 uses of ‘almost’ in one book). Try and notice what these are and cut a few so that it’s not too obvious. Also look out for commonly repeated phrases – raised eyebrows! sudden gasps! brows drawing together! Overuse of the same word or phrases irritates a reader and draws them out of the story. 
  • There are some words that don’t really contribute very much. Words like ‘really’, ‘some’ or ‘quite’. I’m not saying you can’t use these occasionally. If they add to the cadence of a sentence then that’s a judgement call, but too many and they start to become redundant and vague. Like Mark Twain said:

    Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’

    Now go back to the first sentence of this paragraph and see what I did wrong…

  • Look out for adverbs, or as William Faulkner put it: ‘Death to Adverbs‘. Personally I’m not sure about this because I quite like them, but too many makes your writing convoluted. It’s possible to give too much detail as well as too little.
  • Don’t tell the reader something they already know. Tell us your heroine has black hair and green eyes once. Twice maybe, but any more and you’re insulting your reader’s attention span. The same applies to speech tags. If it’s obvious who’s speaking then don’t keep on reminding us unless it adds some nuance or additional piece of information.
  • Finally, and most importantly, remember that your book needs to hold your reader’s attention. Keep your writing active and either have, or get to the point. Don’t start every chapter with someone waking up and noticing the weather. Make every scene earn its keep. If you can take a scene out of a book and it doesn’t affect the plot then it needs to go.

So good luck deleting (and hopefully I haven’t depressed you)! We’re taking a break next month so Hints & Tips is back in September. In the meantime, have a wonderful summer.

Jenni x

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 Jenni Fletcher writes historical romances for Mills & Boon and her seventh book is out later this month. The best way to contact her is via Twitter @JenniAuthor.

4 Comments
  1. Dilys Hartland 4 months ago

    Is there a Hints & Tips on what to do if you under-write? To me, my ms. seems done at 45,000 but that’s a lot less than is required for most publishers. Don’t want to pad with secondary characters and scenes, etc., but what advice do you have, please?

    • Jenny Bourne 4 months ago

      There are a few publishers who ask for 50,000 words so that might be perfect! Otherwise, keep editing and see if there are other details/descriptions that might enhance your story. I struggle with this too, but there are always layers to add without resorting to extra characters. Good luck!

  2. Phillipa Ashley 4 months ago

    Dilys – pacing your novel is part of the process of learning to write and perhaps, the most difficult aspect of all. (I’m still learning after 22 novels) When I started I struggled to write more than 40k but now I do two 100k novels a year. I think it’s about making sure you have enough conflict and then ramping that up to the max and then some, while looking at the over arching plot too. I now write books with two romances in them (maybe more) and external plots with lots of twists and turns. It has taken many years to get there as I’m still learning…

  3. Phillipa Ashley 4 months ago

    PS I think that there are differences in approaches to pacing between shorter romances and longer novels. Neither is easy (!) but they do demand slightly different approaches, I’ve found, after writing both,

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