Most first drafts are wordy—and that’s okay, because your goal in the beginning is simply to turn a story into sentences on a page. But when you’re rewriting and editing that final draft, each word must prove its worth.
Words are your tools and you want them to perform at the highest level. The problem with verbosity, vague word choice and generalizations is they distance the reader from your characters. The closer your reader gets to your character, the more likely she is to connect emotionally, and emotional connection is what a novel is all about. You want your reader to feel what the character feels.
Janet Burroway in her book, Writing Fiction, coined the term “filtering,” and she describes it as “a common fault and often difficult to recognize—although once the principle is grasped, cutting away filters is an easy means to more vivid writing. As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness.’ Yet when you step back and ask readers to observe the observer–to look at rather than through the character–you start to tell, not show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”
Phrases such as “I thought,” “I heard,” “I saw,” and “I felt” are examples of filtering phrases. I prefer to call them “distancing words” because they increase the psychic space between the reader and the story by having the narrator rather than the reader experience the event. They also slow the pace. Most of the time, you can delete these words and let the rest of the sentence stand or make it more active.
Look at the difference:
—I heard his head hit the floor.
--His head hit the floor with a thud.
The first sentence conveys the information through the narrator. The second sentence puts the reader into the scene so she can hear the sound.
Here’s another example:
—I need this, he thought.
—He needed this.
Sometimes you can go directly into the character’s head and write, “I really need this,” but it must work with the flow of the text.
Your goal should be to close the “aesthetic distance,” that space between the reader’s conscious reality and the illusory world. If the reader is so emotionally engaged with the novel that he’s unaware of the outside world, a clumsy or confusing sentence (the sort you have to read several times to understand the meaning) can jolt the reader right out of the fictional dimension. Occasionally, a novel, movie or television program will intentionally violate the aesthetic distance by speaking directly to the reader. Kevin Spacey’s character often does that in “House of Cards.” William Goldman repeatedly interrupts his story and speaks to the reader in his meta-fictional novel, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure.
Here are a few tips on closing the aesthetic distance in your manuscript:
1. Avoid verbosity. For example, “He didn’t know how to lead in these circumstances,” rather than “It occurred to me that he didn’t know how to lead in these circumstances.”
2. Avoid “–ing words.” For example, “He sat…” instead of “He was sitting…”
3. Avoid “that” unless it makes the sentence clumsy. For example, “How did you know I like yellow roses?” instead of “How did you know that I like yellow roses?” You can use a global search to find the unnecessary “thats” in your manuscript.
4. Use abstract words judiciously. Avoid ones like “nice,” “beautiful” and “good.” Show us what makes something nice, beautiful or good.
5. Be specific. Use a Dodge Ram rather than a truck, a Yankees baseball cap rather than a hat.
6. Use words that evoke sensory feelings. Make the house green so the reader can visualize it. Let him hear the “thud” when someone’s head hits the floor rather than learn about it through the narrator. Let him smell the smoke from the fire.
7. Avoid repetition and redundancy not only in words but also in ideas. Beginning writers sometimes use different language to repeat the same thought—apparently, just to make sure the reader got it.
8. Short sentences are more direct and intense whereas long sentences increase the distance between the reader and the story.
If you would like to read a novel that illustrates these principles, check out All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Here’s an excerpt from the Pulitzer Prize winner:
“She can hear the bombers when they are three miles away. A mounting static. The hum inside a seashell.
When she opens the bedroom window, the noise of the airplanes becomes louder. Otherwise, the night is dreadfully silent: no engines, no voice, no clatter. No sirens. No footfalls on the cobbles. Not even gulls. Just a high tide, one block away and six stories below, lapping at the base of the city walls.
And something else.
Something rattling softly, very close. She eases open the left-hand shutter and runs her fingers up the slats of the right. A piece of paper has lodged there.
She holds it to her nose. It smells of fresh ink. Gasoline, maybe. The paper is crisp; it has not been outside long.”
Note the way Doerr uses sensory details and creates tension through sentence fragments, the threat of bomber airplanes, the night’s dreadful silence and the strange, odoriferous piece of paper. One might argue the first sentence should say, “The bombers sound about three miles away,” but I’ll suggest that after I win a Pulitzer Prize. The rest of the passage shows Anthony Doerr knows how to close the distance.
Try it on your own manuscript.