Please welcome my guest, fabulous author Catherine E. McLean. Catherine is the author of Revision is a Process and she has returned to share part two of her series with us on improving writing and taking the frustration out of self-editing. Today her focus will be on clutter.
Today she discusses how to improve upon clutter. You can refer to her previous post on clarity here.
“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”William Zinsser/ ON WRITING WELL
On Writing Well – Clarity and Clutter
Part 2 – Clutter
The trouble with writing genre fiction and storytelling is that no rule of style, device, or technique can be followed 100%. Why? Because writing is an “art” not a science. That’s why the “rules” periodically get bent, twisted, or ignored for the sake of what will work for the story or the narration. Yet one thing holds true—and that is to get the clutter out of the writing and storytelling.
So, what is clutter?
Clutter can be many things from purple prose to jargon. A blog post can’t cover them all. However, let’s look at one of the most important clutterers—words ending in “ly.”
Most writers don’t realize how frequently they use ly-ending adjectives and adverbs or that such words amount to telling instead of showing. For example, look at ‘an exceedingly small mouse.’ Remove ‘exceedingly’ and you get a small mouse. Trouble is, a reader cannot see in their mind’s eye how small that mouse is. So, for clarity, it’s advisable to revise to show with ‘a gray mouse the size of a matchbox.’ (Note that now the mouse is gray not brown or nondescript.)
In other words, search for and look at all “ly” ending words. Evaluate each for clarity of imagery as well as to strengthen sentences so they are not passive. Keep in mind that is okay to use metaphors, similes, and comparisons to achieve a correct image and thus clarity.
Another place you’ll find ly-ending words is with speech tags. For example—
“You idiot.” Marsha said angrily.
Telling the reader she is angry is not as vivid as showing like—
“You idiot!” Marsha slammed her fist down on the table, the force rattling the dinnerware.
Now look at the following cluttered phrases that are attached to a verb and what happens when a precise verb is used—
John impulsively picked up the wand off the mantel.
John snatched the wand from the mantle.
Marsha forcefully closed the door.
Marsha slammed the door.
John quickly pulled the ripcord.
John jerked the ripcord.
So, how do you know if your writing is in need of AAR (Adjective-Adverb Rehabilitation)? Here’s a simple exercise to uncover your use of ly-ending words.
Take one short story or one chapter from your novel.
1) Use your word processing feature to get the TOTAL WORD COUNT for the piece and write that number down because you’ll need it later.
2) Use your word processor’s search feature and type in the find box: ly space. You need to put a space after the “ly” to prevent the computer from highlighting words like lying. Look at the highlighted results. Do you have pages peppered with ly-ending words? Do you have clusters of them? If so, why so many?
3) Now, count only the “ly” adjectives and adverbs (which means you can skip words like holy and holly, etc. from the count).
4) Divide the number of adjectives-adverbs into the number of words in the piece. What you get is the ratio of X number of times in X number of words that “ly” is used. For example, a 6,083 word sample might have 49 “ly’s,” which equals one “ly” every 125 words. It would be better if the “ly” ratio was one in several or many hundreds.
Two factors which necessitate leaving some “ly” words on the page are: a) to maintain the narrative voice, and b) because those ly-words are part of a specific character’s dialogue (otherwise the character’s diction-syntax-vocabulary won’t ring true).
However, low ratios indicate repetitions. Readers hate repetitions without purpose.
I am collecting statistics on repetitions of “ly” and invite you to test your work and leave a comment about what was revealed and your conclusions.
Catherine E. McLean’s short stories have appeared in hard cover and online anthologies and magazines. Her books include JEWELS OF THE SKY, KARMA & MAYHEM, HEARTS AKILTER, and ADRADA TO ZOOL (a short story anthology). She lives on a farm nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania. In the quiet of the countryside, she writes lighthearted tales of phantasy realms and stardust worlds (fantasy, futuristic, and paranormal) with romance and adventure. She is also a writing instructor and workshop speaker. Her nonfiction book for writers is REVISION IS A PROCESS – HOW TO TAKE THE FRUSTRATION OUT OF SELF-EDITING.
Website for Writers: http://www.WritersCheatSheets.com
Links for REVISION IS A PROCESS:
Amazon.com – https://www.amazon.com/dp/0988587440
Barnes & Noble – http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/revision-is-a-process-catherine-e-mclean/1126295618