Write Tight

by Joyce K. Ellis

Sitting in a face-to-face conference appointment with a highly revered writer, I trembled as she silently read my devotional article. I clutched my notebook like a shield over my heart, awaiting her reaction.

“This is good,” she said. “I think it’s publishable. Tighten and polish and send it off.”

Ecstatic, I found refuge in a nearby restroom for a quick thank-You-Lord session. Then I realized I didn’t have a clue what she meant by “tighten and polish.” I’ve spent the rest of my career figuring that out.

With shrinking publisher budgets and reader attention spans, we can increase our publishing quotient if we learn to economize with words. Here are a few “cutting” reminders.

Stay Focused

Begin with the big picture. What is the purpose of your nonfiction piece? Write, in one sentence, what it will say (not what it’s about). For example, not this: My article is about how we can strengthen our prayer lives. But something like this: We can strengthen our prayer lives by learning the art of worship, learning the importance of a pure heart, and learning the practice of praying without ceasing. By the way, those would make great subheads.

I call this an article-in-a-nutshell sentence. Does each sentence, paragraph, anecdote, quotation, and statistic support the article’s focus?

Similarly, write a book-in-a-nutshell sentence for your novel and each chapter. Is every action, dialogue exchange, and setting description essential to that scene’s purpose? If not, cut it. (But save it in another file. You may be dumpster-diving for ideas someday and find a way to recycle what you discarded.)

Eliminate Redundancy

Once we shape the big picture, we can start hacking away at smaller pieces of “deadwood,” such as these redundancies:

  • ecstatic with joy. Could we be ecstatic with sadness? Ecstatic is sufficient.
  • down through the long centuries. All centuries consist of exactly one hundred years, none longer than another. Through the centuries will do.
  • mischievous grin on her face. Where else would she be wearing it?
  • She nodded yes, or he shook his head no.

When noting this last redundancy in workshops, I say, “Look at me.” I nod. “This means yes, right?” Then I shake my head. “This means no, right? So we don’t need the yes and no.”

Note: Axing a word here and there can leave room in our word count to develop our theme better.  

Pick One

Writing flows better with wise word choices. Often we use too many words, trying to ensure readers understand, and we wind up sounding like the Amplified Bible. That reference work provides unique insights, but it’s awkward to read.

So, painstakingly pick the best word. Here’s an example: Through Christ we experience the joy and delight of our salvation.

How much difference is there between joy and delight? When you find other multiple-choice synonyms, such as sins and transgressions or sadness and sorrow, in your writing, I hope you’ll hear my little bell-like voice in your head, chiming, “Pick one.”

Streamline

Wordiness tires readers. Keep them engaged by streamlining expressions such as these:

Wordy: Diane inquired as to his reason for coming. [8 words]

Streamlined: Diane asked why he came.[5 words]

Wordy: Jesus often used stories as an effective means of making abstract truths understandable. [13 words]

Streamlined: Jesus often used stories to make abstract truths understandable. [9 words] Or …to clarify abstract truths. [8 words]

Wordy: We need to take time to reflect on what we read. As we do this, we will receive new insights into what God has to say to us. [28 words]

Streamlined: As we reflect on what we read, God will provide new insights. [12 words]

Note: If you want to emphasize taking time, you might retain that part. However, reflecting implies taking time.

Though I’m mathematically challenged, I believe we have saved twenty-three words in these few examples. That offers another sentence or two to develop an important point elsewhere. We don’t want to change the nuance, but such streamlining can enhance precision.

Restructure Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases can also indicate places to simplify. For example, we wouldn’t write the favorite planet of Janet. We’d turn it into a possessive: Janet’s favorite planet.

But when a proper noun isn’t involved, we often miss an opportunity to write tight. Note these examples:

Original: opportunity for self-advancement

Restructured: self-advancement opportunity

Original: her address in London

Restructured: her London address

Original: tablets of stone

Restructured: stone tablets

Little by little, we whittle and whittle—tightening our writing.

Write Lean

Often we ease into a statement instead of hitting it dead on, even in fiction.

Wordy: Michael decided to get even with the bully.

The decision isn’t the important thing here, so we can delete that whole sentence. In context, we will know what Michael decided when we read what he did.

Better: Michael punched the bully in the stomach.

Watch for Trigger Words

Other expressions that slow the flow include these: one of the, there is/are/were, it’s interesting to note that…. I call them trigger words because they trigger a need for “surgery.”

Surgery candidate: One of the fears many of us experience as a reality in our lives is the fear of being alone.

Healthier: Many of us fear solitude.

Surgery candidate: There are many people who have never read the Bible through.

Healthier: Many people have never read the Bible through.

Surgery candidate: It is interesting to note that God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink.

Healthier: God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink. (Let the reader decide whether it’s interesting or not.)

Clean Up Qualifiers

We can slash most qualifying words, such as these: very, slightly, almost, nearly, just, really, and seem to.

Ridiculous example: I just want you to know that I really don’t like to see so many qualifiers in your writing. They seem to be very distracting and almost always make meslightly nauseated.

Cleaned up: Eliminate nonessential qualifiers. They’re distracting, even sickening.

Qualifiers have a place in our language. But cut the nonessential ones.

Go on a Which Hunt

Use your manuscript search capability to find the word which (also who, whom, that)in your piece. Often they can go bye-bye:

  • conversations which are replete with stories [delete which are]
  • people whom we have known [delete whom]
  • Teenagers don’t enjoy the same activities that they did when they were younger. [delete that].

The more we read good writing, carefully edit our own work, and get peer critiques, the more ways we’ll learn to tighten and polish our writing.

Want to communicate clearly and hold reader attention? Eliminate nonessentials.

This blog post is adapted from Joyce’s book Write with Excellence 201: A lighthearted guide to the serious matter of writing well—for Christian writers, editors, and students.

Look Around and Imagine

Creativity is often a matter of seeing things from a new perspective. Look around your home/workspace and imagine you’re an explorer hiking over that mountain of folders on your kitchen table, or imagine what that fly is thinking as it ambles across your keyboard. Take a microscopic view of your surroundings and see what interesting things come to mind.

Randy Petersen, The Joy of Working at Home

The Tools of the Game

by Rachel Dawn Hayes

When my husband and I made the decision for me to leave my corporate job (and corporate salary) and start freelancing, I know he harbored skepticism. He has confessed that he thought I was angling for early retirement. Within a few weeks, however, he had a turnaround. What changed his mind? He’ll tell you himself that it was how I approached my writing like a real business. I set up accounting and time management systems and practiced a lot of self-discipline. To this day, he has actually never come home early to find me watching soap operas and eating bon-bons—not even as a part of my “creative process.”

Despite what we’ve learned from Jessica Fletcher, Carrie Bradshaw, and other writers from the screen, making a go of freelance writing as a full-time job leaves little time for solving mysteries, attending fashion shows, or sauntering into coffee shops mid-morning to shoot the breeze with the barista. The beauty of working for yourself is that you do have the flexibility for those things, but if you actually want to keep eating and pay your bills, you have to set yourself up as a business and behave like a professional.

There are a few practices I adopted and tools I utilized along the way that helped me. I’ll share a few in the areas of bookkeeping, time management, and business development.

Bookkeeping

Business Checking—For the cost of whatever your financial institution’s minimum deposit is (mine was $100) you can have an entirely separate account (and debit card) for all of your freelance-related expenses. While it’s nice to keep your writing income in one place, the best reason for doing this is keeping up with your expenses for tax preparation. If this account is tied to the bookkeeping app you use—all the better.

Bookkeeping Software—I use QuickBooks and have had a good experience. However, other free or lower-cost options include FreshBooks and Sage. Find one that fits your budget and make sure it can:

  • Produce and track professional invoices
  • Sync with bank account(s) and track expenses
  • Create and export reports such as Profit & Loss

Time Management

Time Tracking Apps—At first, I was tracking the time I spent on different projects in a Word document. Yes, Excel would have been the better option, but…writer. Then I discovered Toggl—a free time tracking app. Its intuitive and visually simple design makes quick work of setting up new projects and the built-in timer allows me to easily track my time and generate reports for projects I bill by the hour. I also use it to keep track of the time I spend on flat-fee projects, business development, and pet (read: unpaid) projects like my short-lived food and wine blog. So Toggl is my pick, but here’s a list of some paid versions with more bells and whistles, if you’re into that.

Schedule—I’m a morning person, and while I don’t understand you night owls AT ALL, to each his own. Make a schedule that works for your life and makes the most of your productive time. As long as coffee is involved, I prefer to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and work until noon. That’s when I’m at my best. After lunch I’m less brilliant, and by evening my 3-year-old could write better copy. Therefore, I’ve always had a schedule that was morning-loaded. The schedule you keep is not the thing—the thing is that you keep a schedule.

Business Development

The Query Hour—As client lists and workloads grow, business development is the area that is most often neglected, but it is so important to the continued flourishing of your freelance business. “I’m so busy! It doesn’t make sense to look for new work right now.” You don’t do business development because you need work now, you do it because you need work next month. I do my best—I’m certainly not perfect—to spend a fixed amount of time on business development every week. For me, that looks like brainstorming story ideas, researching publications and editors, writing and sending pitches, and sometimes working on my website. Whatever it is for you, make regular time for it and stick to it.

Join a Group—If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re already a member of the Evangelical Press Association. Great job! In addition to the national organizations, local groups are great because when we’re not in a pandemic you can often meet in person for great educational programming and networking opportunities. Join committees and show off your expertise a little—it often turns into paid work.

And of course, there’s a group for everything on Facebook and it’s a great place to get almost instantaneous feedback and connection. In your PJs. 

How You Come to Writing

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed. . . You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

Stephen King, On Writing