My mother used to tell me a little story about a guy who sold fish. He thought maybe he’d get more business if he had a sign to advertise his market, so he went to a sign maker.
“How much do you charge?” the fishmonger asked.
“Ten dollars per word.”
Now the fishmonger was a frugal man, so he thought carefully about what the sign should say. “All right, then—paint ‘Fresh Fish Sold Here’ for forty dollars. No…wait! Of course the fish are fresh; my shop is right on the docks. Just paint ‘Fish Sold Here.’ No…wait! Of course I’m selling fish here, where else would I sell them? Just paint ‘Fish Sold.’ No…wait! Of course I’m selling the fish; who gives fish away? Just paint ‘Fish.’ No…wait! Of course I’m selling fish; what else would a fishmonger sell?’
He walked away without his sign, happy that he’d saved forty dollars that day.
The fishmonger learned a lesson that many FaithWriters have also had to learn, especially if they write for the Weekly Challenge—the economy of words. When I was writing for the challenge, I was happiest when my first draft was 800-850 words; I knew that the process of trimming 50 – 100 words would be painful, but would result in a far better entry. And now, as an editor, I find that the MSs I edit end up with about 10% fewer words when I’m done with them.
Here, then, are my tips for writing frugally:
1. Look for places where you’ve used an adjective + noun combination, or an adverb + verb combination, and choose a stronger noun or verb instead.
a. Jack lived in a huge, expensive house/Jack lived in a mansion.
b. Jack walked slowly and heavily down the hall/Jack trudged down the hall.
2. Avoid redundant phrases. A few of my pet peeves:
a. I thought to myself.
(Who else could you think to? Just write I thought
. Better still, eliminate the tag and put the thought in italics.)
b. She nodded her head
and She shrugged her shoulders
. Just write She nodded
and She shrugged
c. It was six a.m. in the morning
. Just write It was six a.m
d. The $500 check was an unexpected surprise
. It’s not necessary to put unexpected
You get the idea—most of these redundant phrases are also clichés, and we write them without really thinking. This website
has a list of redundant phrases that you should avoid.
3. The famous writer Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” Eliminate sentences that don’t. I’ll reprise an example I’ve used before: “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater.” Jan placed her coffee mug on the table.
That action reveals nothing significant about Jan, and does not advance the plot. Eight words, easily snipped.
4. Most readers dislike long descriptive passages. You may find it necessary to set the scene, but often descriptions—whether of places or people—go on far too long. If you have written a description, look for ways to trim it.
a. If you’ve used two or three adjectives, eliminate one or two of them.
b. Sometimes you can arrange the words in a sentence differently and lose a word or two: There were six trees lining the driveway/Six trees lined the driveway.
c. Don’t assume that your reader wants to know what every tree and bush looked like, or every item of furniture in a house, or every article of clothing that your MC is wearing. I’m exaggerating—but truly, descriptive passages should be trimmed, especially in microfiction like the challenge, to allow you more room for character or plot development.
5. Just be ruthless. Slash, slash, slash. I know it’s painful, because we love every word that we write. Just imagine that, like the fishmonger, every word is costing you a sum of money. Be frugal, and spend as little as possible.
Your homework is going to be a little bit different this week. Here’s the background—I used to write a blog called “One Hundred Words.” Several times a week, I posted a complete story with exactly a hundred words. Most of the stories had a developed character, conflict, and a bit of plot development. The rough drafts usually had 125-150 words; if you thought trimming down to 750 words for the challenge was difficult—this is exponentially harder. I’m going to give you a typical rough draft for a 100-word story—your homework is to trim it to exactly 100 words, while retaining the integrity of the story. Feel free to choose different words, to combine, to paraphrase, but keep the story essentially the same. If you wish, post it here for a mini-critique. I’ll give you my edited version in the comments, after some of you have given it a try.Doreen didn’t look up from her book while the subway clacked through station after station. She was aware of the big man sitting heavily next to her, but she inched closer to the window and dug in with her left shoulder. When the train sped through the second of five long tunnels before her home stop, Doreen wished—not for the first time—that she had bought one of those backlit electronic books. She held her finger in the book and moved her thigh away from the man’s blue jeans. The train came to a screeching halt, still in the tunnel; the only light came from a dimly flickering tube overhead. Panicked, she felt her breathing stall in her throat. When she made a small choking sound, the man said, in a surprisingly soft voice, “Ma’am? Would you hold my hand, please?”
As always—any questions? Comments? Additional tips for writing tighter? Suggestions for future classes?