Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Common Dead Wood

A popular post from September 2010

by Annette Lyon

We tell clients (and writers at workshops) to cut dead wood from their work. Some pros go as far as to say you should always cut 10% of your final version, because that's how much dead wood you've likely got.

I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to list a specific percentage (some writers might be fine with 5%, while others should cut 20%), but dead wood is so easy to slip in and sometimes hard to find.

For the sake of illustrating what dead wood can look like, here are some examples. This is in no way an exhaustive list, because dead wood is like dust bunnies, hiding where you least expect it.

Stating the Obvious
A grin spread across her face.
He blinked his eyes.
She nodded her head.

Unless you're writing speculative fiction and your characters have mouths in a locations not on their faces, they can blink something besides their eyes, or they can nod a body part that isn't their head, don't add the body part. These aren't the only variations of this type of dead wood. ("John shrugged his shoulders" also comes to mind as freaking everywhere.)

Repetitive Words and Phrases
Dave drove to Maple Street, drove into the parking garage, and parked his car. He walked up to the street and walked over to Oak Street, three streets over, where he saw a red convertible parked by the curb.

You might not notice how many times you repeat certain words close together unless you read your work aloud and hear them.

Be sure your characters aren't repeating words in dialogue, either. Having Darlene use "quaint" could be a character quirk. Having four other characters use the same word in the same chapter is plain sloppy.

Same goes for actions and other descriptors. Make sure your characters aren't all constantly raising their eyebrows, feeling their hearts race, running fingers through their hair, or doing some other gesture. Change things up.

Lazy Verbs
90% of the time, plain old past tense is most effective. Adding a helping to be verb and -ing weakens the statement.

He was running as fast as he could before the bomb went off.
He ran as fast as he could before the bomb went off.

Unless you have a compelling reason to point out that two things are happening simultaneously (He was hiding the gun in the drawer as she walked in), don't use the helping-verb form. Keep it plain past tense. You might be able to find a stronger verb anyway.

(Instead of he was walking, how about he sauntered?)

Meaningless Words
This list could be huge. It contains words we add to sentences without adding punch or significant meaning. They include words like very, just, and really, which usually water down and tell instead of show.

For example, if she's very beautiful, SHOW her beauty to us. Or just say she's beautiful, because that single word will be more effective than a weak attempt at emphasizing it with very or really.

Another often-unneeded word is that. Yes, sometimes we need that to clarify which person or thing we're talking about, but often it's an extra piece of dead wood.

He called to tell her that their brother was in the hospital.
He called to tell her their brother was in the hospital.

Then there's the easily overlooked yet obvious (once it's pointed out): needless to say, umm, sure, and as far as I can tell.

A phrase to watch out for: THERE IS/ARE/WERE.
Again, no rule is in stone, but 90% of the time, if your sentence starts with THERE ARE or some variation, you've got a weak line and could make it stronger. Find what the real subject and verb are and start with them:

There were a lot of students disrupting class yesterday.
Lots of students disrupted class yesterday.

(Note that THERE IS and its cousins tend to use helping verbs, which by themselves are weak.)

Repeating yourself is surprisingly easy. I've seen things like true fact and famous celebrity. Don't laugh too hard; you might have done something similar without thinking! (I know I have.) Proof carefully.

Point of View Intrusion
This one's a personal peeve of mine: when we're clearly in a character's head, but instead of the author showing what the character sees, experiences, feels, hears, smells, thinks, or realizes, we're told that they do.

She realized the situation was hopeless.
The situation was hopeless.

He heard the phone ring.
The phone rang.

Now what, he thought.
Now what?
(For thoughts, if they're set aside as thoughts, we don't need to be told that's what they are.)

I'm sure you can find more types of dead wood. (Add them to the comments!)

As an exercise, try to cut each sentence in one of your scenes by one word, minimum. You might be surprised at how much stronger the final result is, and how many great new images and verbs you come up with.


folksinmt said...

Love this! So helpful!

Krista said...

You just listed my basic "hunt" when I'm editing. Good stuff every writer should know and memorize. I'd like to add the "could" syndrome.

NO: She could see that he limped as he entered the room.

YES: He limped as he entered the room.

If we know the POV, we know any observation made is coming from that POV. It's unnecessary to say she is seeing it. If it happens, she is seeing it.

Excellent post!

Happy Mom said...

I am not a writer, but I'm interested and ready to start dabbling.

I love your tips!! You know the ropes and take time to help others. That's a beautiful thing!

JoLynne Lyon said...

Thanks for some good reminders. I know better, but this stuff still sneaks in sometimes.

Janice said...

You mentioned setting aside thoughts. Italics or no italics? I've heard both ways. I'd like to hear the word nerds opinion.

Annette Lyon said...

I prefer italics for thoughts. I've seen editor and agent blogs that say the same.

In the end, as long as you're consistent with how YOU do it, then your publisher will use their house style.

Stephanie Black said...

Thanks for the great advice. It will come in handy, since I have a manuscript in need of trimming.

Amber said...

Recently I participated in NPR's three minute fiction contest - a story in 600 words or less - and it sharpened my writing/editing skills when it comes to trimming things down.

Rebecca said...

I'm bookmarking this list and will print it out to use while editing!

Thank you, Annette.

L.T. Elliot said...

Excellent advice! I'm printing this sucker out!