Wednesday, 27 July 2011

IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT

If a word or phrase doesn't add something important to your book, cut it. If it's there because you think it's pretty, rather than helping the story and the reader, cut it.

If in doubt, leave it out. Your book will be better.

In order to do this properly, you must read every word aloud.

Please.

Thank you.

That is all.

19 comments:

Desolie | sharpens your writing said...

I love both the information and the way you've presented it. Showing rather than telling helps every time.
And it applies to both fiction and non-fiction.

Desolie (who edits business and technical writing)

Dan Holloway said...

Sorry, don't get it. Could you expand a little, please :p

JO said...

So agree. So often I've struggled with a sentence, gone over and over it - and eventually decided the reason I was having such a problem was because I didn't need the sentence anyway. (For instance - in my pitch, that you kindly posted, there was a lot of discussion over the final sentence. I drafted, redrafted - then deleted. The whole piece was stronger!)

There - I've gone on a bit. No time to edit and delete now!

Sally Zigmond said...

That's what I love about the crabbit old thing. Short and sweet and absolutely spot on.

Lynda said...

Her teacher said 'cut'.
She cut.
Her teacher said 'delete'.
She deleted.
Her story was finished.
Freed from the dross that had encased it, it gleamed at her.

'He died.'

Sorry, NM. Couldn't resist it.

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent advice.

I wrote -1100 words yesterday. Hope to write fewer today.

David Griffin said...

I say, Nicola, stop beating about the bush. ;-)

mikeyboro1 said...

I've just read this blog post aloud to my workmates. It is a simply wonderful illustration of the need to edit to make a story better.

Thank you NM :)

The Time Sculptor's Secret said...

Typos leap off the page when reading aloud. Your brain will often edit what your tongue will always trip over. Jane Gray

Michele Helene (Verilion) said...

I get it. I wish you'd said it earlier instead of me having to work it out after thousands and thousands and thousands of words.

litrefs said...

I wonder if the same motto should apply to poetry line-breaks too - so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

Rebecca Bradley said...

Great post. Sometimes difficult to do as we become so attached to the words we have created, but a necessity I understand. Thanks Nicola.

Dorte H said...

No!

Well, no doubt most writers should, but even though I am able to WRITE in English, I can´t stand listening to my own voice reading it aloud.

But I do test my sentences silently inside my own head - hope that´s okay? ;)

David Griffin said...

Hope you don't mind me answering this, Nicola:

Hi Dorte, believe me, Nicola is correct in what she says and reading the sentences in your own head is not enough. Believe me, what can sound fine in your head can sometimes sound clumsy/plain wrong when read out loud. So after reading out loud and amending accordingly, then rereading aloud to double check, only then reading in your head once more, it'll sound even better in your mind....so be even better sounding in your readers' minds!

I used to feel a bit silly and/or self-conscious reading out loud with no one else in the house, let alone in the room. But I got over it ;-) Seriously, you don't have to read it as though you are reading to other people; you are still reading out loud to yourself - however quietly - and you can discover lost rhythms/clumsy words/sudden loss of pace that you otherwise wouldn't have noticed.

Try speaking very quietly the words and not listen to your tone of voice (I'm sure it's not as bad as you say!) but to the words you have written. Go on, give it a go, I dare you!

:-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for all your comments - so sorry I didn't reply. I was away and on trains. The, by the time I got back, another post went out and I forgot about this one!

David - thank you but don't worry: I *think* Dorte wasnt disagreeing, just exclaiming No, in the sense of "I don't want to read my work aloud!"

BUt, Dorte, David is quite right - reading the sentence in your head isnt enough. We pick up other things when we read loud. Especially dialogue. I am not a actress and find reading aloud difficult sometimes (especially dialogue) but I reckon if I cant make a reasonable sound from it it's probably needing revision.

I also find it very useful to read it while imagining that my audience doesn't want to be there. I have to grip them with my words. That's a very good measure of whether the words have earned their place, beleive me!

Dorte H said...

Ah, sorry if anyone took my NO the wrong way :D

No disrespect intended at all; I come here because I want to read your advice.

But just like you know what is right for most writers, there are some of us who have learnt over fifteen years what works for us, and what doesn´t. So instead of just repeating myself stubbornly, I´ll tell you that of all the rejections I have received over those fifteen years, it was always because of the content - so when the editors keep telling me there was something in the story they didn´t like (ending, characters, sagging middle, whatever), but it was well-written, I don´t think I´ll change the part that actually works for me.

Nicola Morgan said...

Dorte - no, I realised that but actually it is permissible to disagree with me :))

But actually the "if in doubt leave it out" thing applies however good your writing is. It's a question all the best writers ask themselves, frequently, even constantly. Some may not do so consciously, which is fine if they're good enough, but that whole point of good writing is that each word is chosen to work. I'm sure you agree.

And absolutely we should do whatever works for us. That's one of my long-time mantras!

Dorte H said...

I agree completely with the principle, and I do cull words & phrases all the time so it was just the reading ALOUD bit that doesn´t do it for me. :)

Laura Mary said...

Jo - I spent the weekend doing the same thing! Re-writing the same sentence over and over... only to cut it in frustrtion and find that solved the problem altogether! I often read aloud when I've lost the flow, though I have yet to read it aloud in its entirety...
What a treat that will be for the cats!