Sometimes the problem is the opposite of writer’s block; it’s writer’s diarrhea.
“Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” – Mark Twain
When faced with a 2,500-word assignment, I’m powerless to prevent at least 5,000 words from cascading forth. If my computer were a toilet bowl, I’d undoubtedly need to call a plumber.
Writer’s diarrhea? At times, it’s more like dysentery.
Some writers spend as much time cutting as writing – and I’m one of them. To turn the torrent of words into something of acceptable length, I have to do some serious self-editing.
I suggest you do the same.
When writing a travel story, a sales letter, or a report, there’s nothing wrong with voiding your literary bowels and creating a wordsmith’s midden – at least not initially. But every writer needs to revise and rewrite.
So slash all irrelevant paragraphs. Take a scalpel to the overblown phrases and clunking sentences. Axe those useless adjectives and adverbs. When you use the writer’s equivalent of Imodium to tighten the word flow, your piece becomes much better.
Here are six lessons I’ve learned:
1. Focus on what you’re writing about, and get to the point immediately.
How do you know what’s irrelevant? Well, let’s say you’re writing a restaurant review. Your hungry readers want to know about the food and service – so don’t make them wade through endless paragraphs about anything else.
2. Fix clumsy and overlong sentences.
Take this sample: “If you want to contact the friendly folks in the Lakeland tourist office, which is to be found on Main Street, they will be able to arrange for you to hire a bike, and they are also happy to provide you with free maps of the area.”
Ugh! Far better to say: “Hire a bike through the Lakeland tourist office on Main Street. They’ll also give you free maps.”
3. Read it out loud.
That’s another cure for muddled sentences and excess verbosity. If it doesn’t sound like you sound when you speak, you need to write in a more natural voice, as if you’re the reader’s friend. If you gasp for breath midway through a sentence… it’s too long.
One idea per sentence is enough. Dice your thoughts into manageable morsels. Hiring a bike goes in one sentence. Picking up free maps goes in another. You don’t have to write like Hemingway, but shorter sentences often have more impact.
4. Cut cliches. They add nothing.
“Piping hot coffee,” for example, is a ludicrous term. What does “piping hot” mean? And why do many writers feel obliged to couple it with coffee or soup? Does the liquid pour out of a pipe in the wall? Is it served in the bowl of a Meerschaum pipe? Are Scotsmen playing bagpipes in the distance?
Keep it simple. Never use three or four words where one will do. Which brings me to adjectives and adverbs…
5. Avoid adjective overdose.
Adjectives are fine in moderation, but too many detract from your writing.
Consider how many words you could cut from this sentence to make the description more enticing: “Bright, golden sunbeams play across the lovely, sparkling, fish-laden, sapphire-blue sea.”
6. Go easy on adverbs by making use of “power verbs.”
Look for where you’ve linked a verb and an adverb. Then decide if it would be better to replace those two words with a single and more descriptive verb. For instance, instead of “moved quickly,” you might use a power verb like “raced,” “ran,” “dashed,” or even “torpedoed.”
Look at this example: “In order to get away from the police, the hooligans moved quickly through the market without caring about the chaos they were causing.”
Now, you could simply trim the fat off this sentence by changing “were causing” to “caused,” chopping out surplus words like “in order,” and changing “get away from” to “escape.” But it would be even better to add energy and precision to it with power verbs. Something like this: “The hooligans raced through the market, barging into shoppers and overturning fruit stalls. The slow-footed policemen made no arrests.”
See what I mean?