If you want to know how my week is going, just know that I am currently starting this post at 3:30 AM and I have class in less than seven hours. Because that is how busy I am. Because, it turns out, seventeen credit hours are actually quite a lot (who knew).
The winning category for this week is “writing process,” so I’m going to share some of my tips for tightening your line-by-line writing.
Don’t “Start” to Do Something
Let’s think this one through–do you generally start to complete an action, or do you simply do it? Find phrases like “they started to run” and rework them to “they ran.”
Avoid Progressive Tenses
A progressive tense is something where, instead of saying “they ran,” you say, “they were running.” Progressive tenses have their place–obviously, they exist for a reason. However, they have a knack for weakening writing if used often and incorrectly. So find all of your “they were puking due to the annoyance caused by inappropriate progressive tense usage” and fix that right up to be “they puked.”
Progressive tenses are only appropriate when an action is in the process of completion at the point of its mention within a scene. This means that setting up actions that have already begun before a scene has, for example, is a good reason to use progressive tense. (Slipping into a series of progressive tense sentences in the middle of a scene for no apparent reason, however, is not.)
Don’t Be Passive
Passive voice is, arguably, one of the biggest and easiest errors writers make. (I say “arguably” instead of “definitely” because several of my friends adore passive voice and basically bite their thumbs at me whenever I complain about it.)
Passive voice occurs when you leave the noun committing the verb out of a sentence. For example: “They were hit.” This is lazy writing, because it doesn’t answer all the questions a sentence should:
1) What the action is
2) What/who completes the action
3) What/who the action affects
Instead, we only get 1 and 3. So, fix passive voice by adding 2 back into the equation: Who/what completes the action? With our example, it would become, “The marshmallow hit them.”
(If you can’t figure out if a phrase is passive or not, try to “by zombies” test. If you can add “by zombies” to the sentence and it makes sense, your phrase is passive. Like: “They were hit by zombies.”)
Avoid “There Are” Phrases
This one piggybacks itself on passive voice. There are/is/was/were/will be/etc. aren’t as obviously passive as full-out passive voice, but they also omit one of the three things each sentence needs: #1, an action. Fix this by eliminating the “there are” type phrase, then finding a way to make the sentence make sense without it (so basically: add a real verb).
Example of a “there are” phrase: There are books on the shelves.
Example of a fix: Books line the shelves.
Don’t Be Unnecessarily Wordy
If you can legitimately phrase something in either three words or one, always choose the one.
Let’s say you want to write a sentence about books on shelves, like the one in the previous example. (I’m oh so creative at 4:00 in the morning, huh?) You start with this wording: “Books rested all along the shelf.” While this works, it’s cleaner, more efficient, and ultimately more interesting to write it as, “Books lined the shelves.”
If you explain a plan of action right before completing it, the reader gets bored because they pretty much just read the same thing twice in a row. If you will complete an action within the text, don’t explain it ahead of time. Let the action explain itself as it occurs, instead.
Don’t Forget the Oxford COmma
The Oxford Comma is beautiful. It’s the most beautiful comma in the world. And for some crazy reason, a lot of people seem to think they don’t need to use it.
If you are one of these people: Stop. You are wrong. And no, you cannot win this argument against me.
Let’s take a look at an example of the power of Oxford commas, shall we?
Say Mr. Rich Guy Bob dies and he has four children: Billy; Bobby; Robby; Roberta. He wants to leave a fourth of his money to each of them. So, in his will he writes: “I leave twenty five percent, each, of my fortune to my children Billy, Bobby, Robby and Roberta.” Without that magical Oxford comma separating “Robby and Roberta,” they become one entity. Which means that, between them, they don’t both get 25%–they have to split 25%. However, include the Oxford comma, and everyone gets 25% each as they should.
Basically, use ’em or lose your inheritance.
I could go on and on with tips for tightening prose, but I am hoping to still get a few hours of sleep tonight before Wednesday officially begins, so I’ll leave it there.
Do you have any tips for strengthening your line-by-line writing? Mind sharing?