By Bobbie Christmas
Q: I keep on hearing “write tight, write tight,” from fellow writers and others. I’m not so sure what they’re trying to say to me. The whole darned issue is driving me a little crazy. How can I ever know what’s loose and what’s tight writing?
A: Creative writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, reads best and sells better when it gets to the point without wasted words. If I were to tighten your question, I might recast it this way:
I keep hearing “write tight.” I’m not sure what people mean. The issue drives me crazy. What is tight writing?
The recast says the same thing as the original, but it’s tighter.
Writers who grew up reading classics filled with flowery prose may think they must write the same way if they want to be successful. Many writers “back in the day,” however, were paid by the word. Elaborate descriptions added to the word count and paid the author more. Most classics are considered literary or scholarly, but their style won’t work for today’s readers. Contemporary style calls for clean, tight writing. Fiction readers want a story with an active plot, dialogue that’s related to the plot, and action. They don’t want to read long descriptions of people, places, and things. Nonfiction readers want information and examples, but they don’t need repetition or digression.
Tight writing is devoid of unnecessary words and repetition. It relies on active voice (the boy threw the ball), rather than passive voice (the ball was thrown by the boy). It spurns gerunds and participles (“ing” words) whenever possible.
I’ll give a typical paragraph in a memoir as an example and then show my tighter version after my edits.
Well, I remember seeing a very large package on the front doorstep of my house one morning. I started to shriek, “It’s here! My very own books are arriving.” I could hardly breathe when I was rushing to the front door so I could get the box, bringing it inside.
When I saw a large package on the doorstep one morning I shrieked, “My books are here!” I rushed to the front door and brought the box inside.
As you can see, the tighter version deleted superfluous words and replaced weak verbs with strong ones.
In memoirs, especially, I see “I remember” far too often. Of course the author remembers; otherwise he or she couldn’t be writing about it.
In fiction and nonfiction manuscripts I edit, I see dozens of words that can be deleted without affecting the final result. While the following piece of dialogue is grammatical, what would you delete to make it more realistic and tighter? “Well, John, I know your eldest daughter, Denise, is about to graduate from high school, so what do you intend to do to celebrate with her?”
Here's what I recommend: “Denise is about to graduate. What are your plans to celebrate with her?” In real life John knows that Denise is his daughter, that she’s his eldest, and that she’s graduating from high school, not college. All those things can be deleted. In addition, when two people are the only ones speaking, they rarely call each other by name unless they’re angry with each other.
I edit manuscripts and can tighten a manuscript for a price. It’s time consuming, though, so it’s not cheap. Instead I recommend my book Write In Style. The book explores and explains many words and phrases that writers can find and refine in their own manuscripts.
Tight writing is strong writing; however writers should initially write without thinking about writing tight. Get the story down first. In the next drafts delete superfluous words and replace weak verbs with strong ones. You’ll be amazed at the results.
Bobbie Christmas is a book editor, author of Write In Style: How to Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications. She will answer your questions too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com or BZebra@aol.com. Read Bobbie’s blog at https://www.zebraeditor.com/blog/.