The one-legged octopus: the necessary in fiction

Cut unnecessary words.


Its a common piece of advice given as an aid to editing. And taken at it’s root, its good advice. You’re polishing, there’s bound to be rough bits, sneaky little jagged splinters just waiting to crawl beneath an editor’s skin – questioning your word choice, your rhythm and flow and generally all the things you really shouldn’t worry about too much on first pass, is good writer practise.

Problem I see, is that every manuscript is different and every writer is different. There may be common themes of overwriting. I tend to write it as I think it – if I pause, a comma will find its way to the page, if I don’t, the ten line sentence finds its way out. Or the random I-went-to-make-a cup-of-tea full stop in the middle of James had. Known him for a while.

All advice if applied, to my mind, should be applied through the lens of your own intent. Some writers and many many advice-givers take advice on wholesale. Which means, in order to apply ‘cut unnecessary words’ they need to be told what the unnecessary words are.

And I very often find myself disagreeing…

Tautology – in non up-me-own-snooty-nose terms, saying the same thing twice.

One of my favourite lines is tautological – ‘to thine own self be true’

‘Own’ and ‘self’ being the same thing. Perfectly fair. But ‘to thine self be true’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Tautology in my own honest opinion is usually completely fine. I’ve never removed tautological constructs. They often add a necessary extra beat to smooth the rhythm – rhythm is something we hear instinctively not measure analytically. It also adds emphasis. In the Shakespearian line the stress lies on ‘own’ which drums the point home. And lastly removing it rarely improves the read. Removing words for the sake of it is a consideration when writing a newspaper column, not a novel. Take it out if it trips you up, otherwise leave it.

Adverbs …not again – well no, because I hate to repeat myself šŸ™‚ This is slightly more specific – it refers to the small collection of adverbs such as ‘really, just, almost, always, actually, very, only.. ‘ ya know the ones. We use them all the time, we break up sentences with them, we stress points with them, we fill pauses and ruminate round points with them, giving ourselves time to think, prevaricate in case someone wiser (and meaner) disagrees with us. And all of that is why I am reluctant to advise cutting them.

When I pick up a book the very first thing I am looking for in the first words I read is a person. I don’t want a list of facts. I don’t want a list of prettily arranged words. I want to hear a voice inviting me in to their story. Those adverbs hint that there is personality and what that personality might be. ‘Just’ and ‘really’ can add a youthful uncertainty. ‘Actually’, is a dry and quite officious word and can suggest a person rather righteous in their self image. Character is definitely something you don’t want to remove.

The obvious – the stars shine above us argument. Well obviously they say, they shine above us. Where else would the stars shine? Sometimes I feel like there is a tax on words.

You could say the stars shine. You could. Its factually correct. But then one could argue – of course the stars shine. They are light. That’s all we can see. So we could just say, the stars. As a sentence its getting kind of pointless. The readers gonna ask the stars what? And no amount of ‘well obviously they are shining above us, what else do stars do? is really going to placate them. Sometimes they just really really need you to spell out the obvious.

I’m genuinely not being facetious. Well not without point. There are certain things we take for granted, but there is also a very curious effect (and this does return to Elmore Leonard), that if you leave the so-called obvious out consistently, the reader will actually start to feel its absence. Sometimes it causes confusion, but mostly its a feeling we’ve missed something – like that feeling you’ve left the oven on. Patterns in syntax can become so well worn that the reader trips whenever something is changed. You can use this to your advantage but most of the time the preference is for the words to become invisible, paint to the picture forming in your mind.

And again the read is rarely improved by removing them, made terser yes. But its not the most appealing tone for a storyteller’s voice.

All words are up for the chop – but for the right reasons in the right place. If I personally had to offer advice to the editing, I’d say keep three questions in mind – does it confuse, does it stutter, does it bore? yes to any, I’d look at how to improve it. Otherwise, let dogs lie.. šŸ˜‰


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