Harness the Power of Brevity: 5 Tips Writers Need to Say More with Less
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Filling Tall Orders with Short Stuff
There’s plenty of writing an author has to do outside of the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into their fiction. In many ways, the shortest things you will write are also going to be the most important ones. If the guidelines of a query say you need a synopsis in 100 words, you’d better be able to get the main ideas across succinctly, or you’re sunk. This is closer to writing advertising copy than it is to writing War and Peace, which means it’s tough for your average fiction aficionado. But there are things you can do at the sentence level that can help save you precious words.
Here’s my tips in an easy list, but read on to find out more.
- Ditch rhetorical questions
- Keep your sentence structure simple
- Passive voice is a waste of words
- Make every word pull its weight
- Give the short stuff the editing attention it deserves
Will he be able to beat the clock and save the world?
What about this one:
What if everything you thought you knew was a lie?
Rhetorical questions are exactly that, a tool for rhetoric. They were developed as part of the proper procedure for giving speeches to an audience that was listening to an orator. Furthermore, the orator had a specific purpose – persuasion. When you are dealing with the written word, especially narrative fiction, this practice is a total waste of time. If a story idea is boiled down to something generic enough to be put into a rhetorical question, it has already been robbed of all of its flavor. And worse, you’ve wasted words in the process!
So, ditch the questions and stick to statements.
Simplest, Simpler, Simple
Generally speaking, people begin many sentences with dependent clauses and resort to meandering vagueness in order to avoid giving too much away detail. This isn’t always the case, but when it is the case, all of those commas can really slow down the pacing. After a while, the pauses become exhausting, and the average reader will get tired of meandering along with you on these long, continuous, unbearable sentences.
See what I did there? That is a terrible paragraph. I took three long sentences to express an almost effortless idea: Simple sentences are shorter than complex ones. Plus, they pack more of a punch. The easiest superfluous clauses to avoid are the ones that express time (at the time, one day, etc.), place (In a faraway land, in the swamplands of the southern kingdom, etc.), and frequency (in general, every century, etc.).
You might think you are being economical by jamming a ton of information into one sentence. But that still results in more words in the end. This isn’t to say that you can’t have “ifs, ands, or buts” in your sentences, but if you are going to use them, make sure you are paying attention to the frequency. Even in a brief piece of writing, such as a synopsis, a reader is going to want variety. If the structure of a sentence, such as this one and the two before it, all share similar structures, it gets boring to read. As you can see, you are yawning already, and if you aren’t yawning already, you would be by the end of a page of this kind of comma-ridden sentence structure.
Passive sentences tend to be longer than active ones. It could be because of how often compound verb forms like “had been” and lots of “was blank-ING” happening in the past. But passive voice is more than just verb forms. For instance:
By putting “he” at the beginning of the sentence rather than the active noun (shadow soldiers) in the forefront, the sentence gained “had been,” but also “by the” before they are mentioned.
Here’s an alternative:
The shadow soldiers hunted him all his life. (active, 8)
They hunted him his whole life. (active, 6 words, works if you’d mentioned the subject before)
In the two active examples, the verb “to hunt” became the main verb rather than “to be.” The subject also changed to refer to the soldiers. If you wanted to keep the hero as the subject, think about verbs that aren’t an extension of “to be.” Nearly any other option will be more active than “was” or “had been.”
Here’s an alternative:
He spent his life hunted by the shadow soldiers. (active, 9 words)
He struggled against them all his life. (active, 7 words)
I may have only shaved off a couple of words here and there, but over the course of a few paragraphs, that adds up to a lot! Changing all your passive to active will definitely buy you “white space” to fill with those crucial words you need to sell your work, or get your idea across.
Just another reason to stick to active voice, even if you are writing a blurb or query letter.
Choose ALL your Words Wisely
All a sentence needs to be sentence is a subject and a verb, and usually in that order. Obviously, interesting sentences have a little bit more than that, but this is the jumping-off point for all of English.
You might spend days agonizing over a character’s name, but every word has a job to do. Some words are just more loaded than others. “Woman” tells you very little about the subject, but “Mother” automatically starts a series of connections sizzling in our brains. The word “mother” is a loaded word, meaning it carries not just its primary meaning (a female human who has given birth), but a whole cascade of associations. The reader will make assumptions about the relative age of the person (because children can’t have their own children), and extrapolate some experiences that could be held in common. These sorts of loaded words can help you be brief, but can also send your reader down the wrong path if the context sends the associations spiraling in the wrong direction.
Another great example would be “apprentice.” The reader will automatically know they are dealing with a young-ish individual who is trying to learn a trade of some sort. One could reasonably guess any apprenticeship is taking place in the past, or is in some arcane discipline like blacksmithing. If your character is some sort of apprentice and doesn’t fit this idea, then you should avoid using that word in your blurb even if you use it in the text. In the short introductory writing, your goal is communicating the most information in the fewest words, so don’t choose words unless they fit the associations the reader will automatically generate.
More than likely, you can also get by without most adjectives. If a crime has been committed, you probably don’t need to specify it was “heinous.” Some place called The Cave of Secrets doesn’t need to be referred to as “mysterious.” If you do want to convey mood or detail while still being brief, try to do it through your nouns and verbs. They have to be there to be a sentence, so make them do extra work.
A “vixen” is not only a woman, but a sexy one with an air of confidence and mischief. A character could be “yelled at” by her boss, but if her boss “berated” her instead, you save an extra word. Any time you can replace a noun or verb with a synonym that conveys more detail than the original, you are making those words pull their weight without weighing you down.
There are also lots of phrases and idioms that can drag you down and weaken the points you want to convey. No one in literature should ever “feel a bit angry” or be “a bit of a gambler.” If they are only a teeny amount anything, then it isn’t worth mentioning. If the anger or gambling problem is a big part of the plot or character, don’t pull any punches. Make the person “enraged” or “besotted with Lady Luck,” but for the love of ink, stop using little words that diminish your prose and slow you down. (Not to mention the passion of your character!
Give it the Attention It Deserves (AKA Revise!)
There aren’t a lot of writers who will argue with the suggestion that they run their through multiple drafts, maybe even an editor, before they let anyone see it. The “other writing” is no different! Even if it only takes a few minutes to jot down a few sentences, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take an hour revising it. In many ways, brief forms require even more revision because every word counts even more. Even a letter or two can change how many lines are in your paragraph, which has a visual impact on your reader. (Long paragraphs = skimming!) So, let’s see if we can slim down even more.
Synonyms are your friend
We’ll keep going with our original sentence idea from above, but one of the active alternatives:
The shadow soldiers hunted him all his life.
Not a bad sentence. Not a great one, but not bad. Can you spot a place to cut a word or two? If you chose “all his life,” give yourself a point. “All his life” is three words and deals with the passage of time. “From birth” is only two, and also ties in to the idea of his life. On the other hand, “always” is only one word.
It could go something like this:
The shadow soldiers had always hunted him.
He had always been hunted.
Looking better, and it preserves the idea of time from the original sentence. Woot! But here’s where I am going to stop you from celebrating. We may have revised that sentence to a shorter version, but is all of the information actually necessary? In this case, I’d have to decide if it matters how long the hunting was taking place, or does it only matter in the present. If duration doesn’t matter to the meat of the story, and it rarely does, don’t worry about mentioning it at all. The catalyst that sets the hero on his path or the great treasure she’s searching for is much more word-worthy than words about frequency and duration.
Building it Back Up
“The shadow soldiers hunt him” is only 5 words, and you can fill in the rest of the space you gained from the original passive sentence with more interesting words. Once you get something tight, it’s time to add some of the panache back in. Revising isn’t just about subtraction, it is also about choosing the right moments to take an extra word or two for the sake of mood or to hook your reader.
The shadow soldiers hunt him…
…without mercy, without end.
…from the backs of dinosaurs.
…on land and sea.
…until he pays for his crimes.
…until the Staff of Oo’blech is restored.
You get the idea! The more you take out at the front, the more you can put back in at the end.
How about you? Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping it brief? Tell us about it!
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