Friday, July 8, 2011

Cues from the Coach: Economy of Words

Example One
Maria stepped off the bus and looked around. The employment agency should have been right there, but she didn’t see it. Turning one way and then the other, she stared up and down the street, her gaze pausing at a pet shop window near the bus stop. A puppy watched her through the glass, its tail wagging its smile. Forcing her mind back to her dilemma, she rummaged vainly through her purse for the piece of paper she had written the address on. Shaking her head, she tried to remember where it might be and then smacked her palm against her forehead; it must still be by the telephone. She looked at her watch. Her appointment was in less than five minutes, but she wouldn’t be there because she couldn’t even recall the name of the agency. With the back of her hand, she wiped away the tears in her eyes. Then she turned around and sank down on the bench at the bus stop. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore. She wouldn’t have gotten the job anyway. She never did.

Example Two
Maria stepped off the bus and looked around. What was the employment agency’s name and address? Rummaging through her purse for the piece of paper she’d written it on, she came up empty-handed. Then she remembered; it was lying on the table next to the telephone. Glancing at her watch, she sighed, swiped at her tears with the back of her hand, and sank onto the bench next to the bus stop. It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t have gotten the job anyway.

The detailed first paragraph paints a busier word picture than the simple second one. But do those details move the story forward? Does not her internal dialogue at the paragraph’s end shout her despair?

We’ve had previous discussions about eliminating extra weight in your manuscript. One way to determine whether you need to put a scene on a word diet is by evaluating its purpose. Is it action, dialogue, tension-building, or high emotion? Cut it to the bone and make every word count. Are you viewing a sunset, sitting by a stream, or giving your readers other downtime to catch their breath between action scenes? Then be descriptive.

Readers are busy. When they sit down with a book, they want to be educated, informed, or entertained. Most don’t want to wade through a smorgasbord of appetizers to get to the main course. When you reduce the number of dishes offered, however, remember to keep the seasonings. A bland meal rivals that overabundant smorgasbord in its failure to satisfy the reader’s appetite for a great book.

As a reader, do you skip over wordy scenes or narratives? As a writer, how do you use words to keep the reader engaged? As an editor, how do you help writers employ economy of words to keep their story or content moving?

Linda Lane coaches writers through edits of their books and currently is developing e-courses on effective writing and editing. By fall her workshops will be available online for all who want to raise the bar on the quality of self- and independently published books. Learn more about her work at
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  1. Linda-- I didn't know where you were going with these examples, but reading the first one already had all my editing sensibilities twitching!

    You raise such a great point: Word painting is great as long as you are moving the story forward. A story stalled is a story rejected by agents and abandoned by readers.

  2. Linda, you're right. I do tend to skip over extraneous words. I often find that writers feel the need to repeat themselves. They write three sentences that say basically the same thing, just in slightly different ways.

  3. I often skip long descriptions, and if the keep happening in a book, I give up on it. Since I don't like a lot of description when reading, it's hard for me to judge how much description to put in when writing.
    Morgan Mandel

  4. I skip long description...I remember this lesson from another Blood Red Pencil post. It is a good one.

  5. Good post, Linda, and my editing pencil really wanted to tackle the second part of your first example, but I did like the first few lines. It set a tone for the character and her seeing the dog was a nice detail that firmly set her in a place. The reader could envision the street, the pet shop, the bus stop. Taking out that detail sort of put her in a limbo. Does that make sense?

  6. I liked the puppy, too, Maryann; so it's interesting that you mentioned it. Whether or not to elimate that little detail became a debate in my mind when I wrote this. In the end, it went (with some regret) because it seemed to me to be a slight distraction from the character's focus and mental stress that I wanted to create in this tiny scene, which is only a moment or two long. Had I opted to make the scene longer, I would have had her looking up and down the street and seeing the dog as she waited for the next bus. So your point is an excellent one and would certainly ground the scene.

  7. Excellent, Linda. Like Kathryn, I was using my mental red pencil on that first example!

  8. I tend to focus on action and gloss over setting the scene. My critique group said my writing felt flat because of it. I had a great deal of trouble with economy of words when I went back to try and fix it.

  9. Great advice. I'm in the process of trimming the fat right now. The trick for me is gutting the extra words without losing the voice.

  10. When I read your explanation I started to think about how hard it was to read Doctor Zhivago years ago with all those big skies.

  11. Long narrative passages *can* be great if, like you said, they move the story along. But too often, those passages stall the story, making the reader wonder when you're going to just get on with it already.

  12. One important difference between the two examples is that ‘The detailed first paragraph (does in fact) paint(s) a busier word picture,’ as Linda says in the article. It does so much more than the second which has less chance of drawing the reader into the story and relating to the character on a more intimate level.

  13. Frank, you make an excellent point. The first paragraph, with a little tweaking, paints a stronger, more complete picture of the scene — which is a short moment in a larger scene. The "before and after" details will definitely play into what works best in this tiny slice of the protagonist's life. Sometimes the bare bones approach is needed because of the intensity or action of a scene. Other times the emotional hook provided by additional details make the scene work.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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