Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I've been told more than once that my writing is wordy, but I just don't know what to cut. How can I fix this?

Authors can be wordy in different ways and the cause can even change from one piece to another. Wordiness is an elusive issue because it is often created by individual word and phrase choices throughout a piece. While you may cut out entire paragraphs or scenes, much of the work of eliminating wordiness has to do with paring down within individual sentences or phrases. You might not feel like you're making a big impact when you delete one or two words in a sentence, but combing through the entire work in this way can have a profound impact.

Below are common causes of wordiness and ways you can fix them. You may find all are responsible for the sluggishness in your own writing.

Expressing the same sentiment twice: Writers spend a lot of time finding just the right way to convey an emotion or image. It's not uncommon to restate what you've already said in an effort to find what works best. Strong writing also works on mere suggestion, and writers can sometimes doubt the effectiveness of that suggestion and reinforce it just to make sure. Be certain you aren't repeating what you've adequately conveyed. For example:

Albert set the figurine on the mantel. Gail wanted to scoop it up and shatter it to the floor. She wanted to protect him from everything it meant. She put her hand on his shoulder.

Her desire—to destroy the figurine—and her action—putting her hand on his shoulder—show the reader how protective she's feeling. That doesn't need to be stated.

Relying on adverbs and adjectives: Mark Twain supported the practice of crossing out as many adverbs and adjectives as possible without losing sense. Some writers load their sentences with these modifiers, which can bog down the forward movement. Strengthen sentences by relying on precise nouns and verbs and keep only those adjectives and adverbs that are absolutely necessary. For example, this passage is riddled with modifiers:

We were quite surprised when the angry man shut the door forcefully.

This revision relies on precise verbs, but doesn't lose the anger and force of the action:

We were shocked when he slammed the door.

Adding in detail for the sake of detail: We all know the importance of details. They can add authenticity and create a true sense of the moment-to-moment. But too many details can clutter a work. How do you know what to keep? Here are two good guidelines to get you started. First, focus on defining details, the ones that capture something important about what you're describing. You don't need to describe an entire office to capture the atmosphere of it. Focusing on the dead ferns near the window and the dust on the computer screen will evoke the space quite well. The reader's imagination can fill in the rest. Second, make sure the details you include are contributing to something significant. Knowing Lucy has a scar on her abdomen from a dog bite when she was six may be a necessary detail if it contributes to Lucy's insecurity as she considers asking her co-worker out on a date. But there are plenty of conflicts in which her scar wouldn't be important at all. You want to make your characters individual and interesting, but choose details that are relevant, too.

Overcomplicating: In an effort to create eloquent prose, some writers reach too far in their language. Take this example:

He envisages her as impertinent and memorializes her in his efforts at art.

Not very engaging, is it? In addition to sounding awkward, overcomplicating the language also has the tendency to create vague or abstract moments. Here's the same sentiment, toned down:

He imagined her posing nude. He painted canvases of just the curve of her neck.

This adds two words, but because the reading is effortless, it actually feels less wordy.