Economy: Advice for beginner writers

Beginner writers often struggle to write concisely.  If you’re like me, your natural tendency is to be wordy. Many people think that if they include lots of description in their stories they are providing more value to the reader, giving them more bang for their buck. However, less is more, and you should usually aim for economy of language. Use as few words as possible to say what you want to say. What does this mean in practice?

  1. Be precise in your language. For example, instead of saying ‘The air inside the room seemed as though it hadn’t been refreshed for a long time’ you could say ‘The room smelt stale’.
  2. Avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs. (This point is related to point 1.) Adjectives and adverbs are describing words. Adjectives describe nouns while adverbs describe verbs. For example, consider the sentence ‘Fido ran speedily thorough the forest carrying a long, knobbly stick’. Speedily is an adverb that describes how the dog runs. But to be precise and concise you could say ‘Fido charged…’ or ‘Fido sprinted…’ or ‘Fido rushed…’. Long and knobbly are adjectives that describe the stick. But we don’t really need to know the stick is long and knobbly unless this information is important for the story e.g. if the stick gets caught on something or cuts Fido’s mouth. So the sentence becomes ‘Fido charged through the forest carrying a stick’.
  3. In each sentence take out any words that can be removed. For example, I look for the word ‘that’ when I’m editing. A sentence such as ‘She knew that he was lying’ becomes ‘She knew he was lying’.
  4. On a paragraph level, take out any sentences or paragraphs that are not essential to the story. This is important in a short story, where every word has to count. If the reader doesn’t need to know something, or it doesn’t move the plot forward, take it out. In a novel, you can afford to be more diffuse, but still consider every sentence and paragraph to be sure whether or not you need it. Having said that, I of course accept that there is a place for description and exposition. I have read some beautiful passages of description in many novels. But one or two well-chosen sentences is often sufficient to immerse a reader in the setting.
  5. Avoid repetition. This applies on a word level and a more general level. With the former, consider the sentences ‘She saw the note lying on the floor. There was no-one around so she walked across and picked it up off the floor’. The repetition of ‘the floor’ is clunky, so remove ‘off the floor’ from the second sentence.                                                                                              On a general level, look through the text and assess whether any topics are recurring. For example, I read a story in which the main character was going fishing. In one paragraph I was told about the types of fish in the river, then in the next I was told how much he enjoyed fishing, and so on. These bits of description were intermingled with description of other things and with sentences that moved the story forward, and the information sometimes overlapped such that I was being told information I’d been told before. It would have been better to only tell the reader a few of the most important points and keep them together.

Summary

Taking all the above into account, take a look at the paragraph below and see if you can spot the issues present in it:

‘The people of the tribe were neatly arranged in a circle on the floor on grass mats inside a huge, dome-shaped tent. The tent was able to seat eighty people but there were only fifty-five people in the tribe. The tent was made of cow hides stitched together and had a hole in the top to allow smoke out if there was a fire lit inside, which today there wasn’t.’

This paragraph can be rewritten as ‘The tribe were seated in a tent’.

A final word of advice: Word count is important. For a debut author, the optimum word count for a novel is about 80-90k words. For science fiction and fantasy the upper limit is 120k because of the word-building required and epic nature of much fiction in this genre. Going over these limits means that your book will demand too much editing time and cost too much to produce, so it is unlikely to be accepted by an agent or publisher.

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