A few lessons from college writing courses, and advice from my HarperCollins editor, have stayed with me over time and greatly improved my writing. The first is strengthening verb usage, and the second is getting rid of unnecessary words/phrases.
We did an exercise in a writing class at Radford University that seemed incredibly mundane and boring at the time but turned out to be life changing in my career. We were tasked with combing through a story we’d written and finding every “was/were” verb, then trying to reword the sentence to get rid of the “was/were” and replace it with a stronger verb.
For example: There was a house in the distance and the sky was dark.
Nothing is wrong with this sentence, necessarily. It’s just that when you get several sentences that all have this sort of layout, the readers eyes might start to glaze over. Over-usage of the “to be” verb is considered juvenile. Using was/were is often a sign that we are doing a lot of “telling,” instead of “showing.” Readers want to be shown. They want to envision and live the story with the characters. Let’s raise the skill level and make the online thesaurus our new best friend.
Consider instead: A house stood in the distance under an ominous, darkened sky.
Don’t tell us the room was cold. Show us the character shivering and pulling their jacket tighter.
You get my meaning. And it’s funny because I just edited the above line in a way that demonstrates my next point of getting rid of unnecessary words. The absolute biggest culprit is the word “that.” In the paragraph above I’d written, “Don’t tell us that the room was cold.” Again, nothing wrong with it, but unnecessary words are stumbling blocks in a reader’s mind. Unless you need to use the word “that,” get rid of it. Get straight to your point.
I challenge you to do a search in your manuscript for “that,” and delete any which don’t affect the meaning of your sentences.
Other common culprits are fluff words such as “very,” “really,” and other -ly adverbs. These words should be used with caution. When sprinkled sparingly throughout, they can be powerful. When used too much, the reader’s eye begins to skim, and the meaning of the words lose their command. Here is a simple example.
She really loved summer because she was a very good swimmer. Feels elementary, right? How about: She loved summer because she was a great/strong/excellent swimmer. Getting right to the point can have a clear, prevailing effect.
Keep in mind, these sorts of language fixes need not be a worry while writing your first draft. If you’re focusing too much on these technicalities, it could put a strain on your story content. Just write. My first drafts are riddled with “that”s and adverbs. It’s during the revising and editing process that I find the pests and kill them, taking time to reword some sentences and strengthen them. If you’re a word freak like me, you might actually find it enjoyable.
Hope this helps. Happy revising, friends!