Once a month I go to a writers’ workshop. The participants vary though there are a few regulars. I thought with my Wednesday night job that I wouldn’t be able to attend anymore, but I had no appointments this week and was able to go! One of our regulars is a professional editor who is always handing out great writing advice. A few of his sticking points have to do with writing on the ‘word-level.’ By this I mean that it’s not focused on voice, flow, or technique as much as on engaging a reader through word choice. I took notes on his advice and I want to do an experiment!
I found an old prompt that I wrote a while back. The prompt was: Write a death flashback scene of a villain’s life. I want to go through it and work on the four things this editor recommended for tightening up one’s writing. The four things (I’ll go into reasons later) are:
- Forms of the verb ‘to be’
- Prepositional Phrases
I’ll mark up the writing using the key above (ex. adverbs in dark purple, adjectives in green, etc.). Then, I’ll go through each of the editor’s suggestions and explain why it helps to tighten up writing. Then, I’ll re-write the passage with those suggestions in mind and you can tell me which you prefer, what parts you like best, and why. Here we go!
David felt his heart clench inside his chest. Frantically, he stumbled toward the phone in the living room but collapsed on the rug ten feet short. He started to crawl, but the pain was too intense.
There was no one else in the house and he knew he was having a heart attack. No one ever visited the big farm house. No one would even know he was gone until he didn’t go around to pay the wages, and pay day was four days away. David’s heart clenched again, this time in fear. He was going to die alone.
There was no wife to rush to his side and cry over his body. Jeanine had left twenty years ago and there were no children. David had regretted how he acted, but he didn’t know another way. He spent all day talking to his workers, treating them like the scum of the earth that they were; it was hard for him to come to Jeanine at the end of the day and be polite and loving. His personality wasn’t a switch to turn on and off.
No friends would be his pallbearers at the funeral. Come to think of it, there was no reason for a funeral at all. The closest thing he had to friends were the men he bought fertilizer and farm equipment from in town twice a year. They knew his name, did that mean they would mourn his passing? Unlikely. Maybe the banker would mourn him. David visited the bank frequently to inquire into his stock values and interest rates. The banker would notice he was missing. But he never came to visit so David couldn’t be saved.
His mother might arrange a funeral, if she was still alive. When he’d left home, David had never looked back. He was so determined to build a life for himself as far from the one-room house on another man’s ranch that he’d severed all ties. He hoped his father was dead so that he didn’t have to bare this embarrassment in his father’s mind. David remembered hearing that you shit yourself after you die. His father would only laugh at that.
The room grew darker around him, but David could still make out the dear possessions in his living room. The television set he never watched, purchased only to see the looks of jealousy on the faces of everyone else in the general store. There was a bookcase filled with classics and first editions of which he’d never cracked the spines. Priceless art hung on his walls and David couldn’t help but wonder who would inherit it after he was gone.
A single tear rolled down his face. It wasn’t from fear of death because David knew that Death would be a welcome ending. It wasn’t from pain, as David considered himself above pain and suffering. It was a tear of loneliness, one solitary tear.
So there’s the starting point. Now, I’ll go into the four suggestions and talk about how they can lead to stronger writing.
Eliminate adverbs: This same topic came up on The Daily Post last week. The basis of this argument (shared by many writers, including the great Stephen King) is that an adverb can be removed and replaced by a stronger verb. Writers who find themselves using adverbs to excess are likely using the same basic verbs over and over, making for repetitive, boring, and weak writing. The advice: use them sparingly if at all.
Minimize adjectives: This is a similar argument to the adverb argument. Adjectives describe a noun. Someone overusing adjectives is using weak nouns. By minimizing adjectives, the writer forces himself to find more varied, unique, and impactful adjectives (now there’s a list of adjectives I should eliminate in a revision).
Avoid passive voice to the extreme: I say ‘to the extreme’ because that was what impacted me the most. More than not using the passive voice (the SUBJECT was PAST PARTICIPL(ED) by the DIRECT OBJECT), this editor recommended getting rid of anything that could be construed as the passive voice and eliminate as many uses of the verb ‘to be’ as possible. What a challenge! This again related to the adverb advice: you can use a stronger verb. ‘To be’ is one of the backbones of English and any language, but it’s such a common verb that it’s vastly over-utilized. A stronger substitute works better.
Avoid prepositional phrases: There are two caviots to this advice: (1) keep it in dialogue and (2) unless it reads awkwardly without the phrase. Wow, I would have never thought of this! We can relate this one to the adjectives advice in that prepositional phrases can many times clutter a sentence with unnecessary description that detract from the message the writer wants to get across
Armed with this advice, I’m going to attempt to follow as much of it as possible and clean up my earlier prompt into much tighter, stronger, and impactful prose. Here goes nothing!
David felt his heart clench. He stumbled toward the phone but collapsed ten feet short. He started to crawl, but pain coursed through him.
The empty house provided little relief from his sufferings. Few visitors came visiting and no one would notice his absence. The workers only spied him on pay days and one had just past. David’s body tensed, realizing he would die alone.
The silence surrounding David struck him. His wife had left him and their caustic nature never brought on a tendency toward children. David regretted how he acted, but he’d never learned how to behave. He spent all day working and treating the employees like scum; he couldn’t come home and fake polite and loving. His personality didn’t turn on and off like a switch.
No friends would serve as pallbearers. Come to think of it, a funeral would be a waste. The men he bought farm equipment from might come but additional seats would remain vacant. The men knew his name; did that mean they would mourn his passing? Unlikely. Maybe the banker would mourn him. The bank allowed him to watch his money grow. He and the banker used Christian names together but didn’t visit each other’s homes. David had no savior coming.
His mother might arrange a funeral, if she still lived. Once he’d left home, David hadn’t looked back. He’d challenged himself to succeed and built life far from the one-room house on another man’s ranch his parents called home. He hoped his father had passed so he wouldn’t have to hear this embarrassing end. David remembered hearing that the recently deceased shit themselves. His father would laugh to find David’s pants full of shit.
The room grew darker, but David could still make out the hoarded possessions surrounding him: the television set he never watched, purchased only to see the clerk’s jealous look; the bookcase filled with classics and first editions he hadn’t read; the priceless art smiling sadly back at him. David couldn’t help but wonder who would inherit it all.
A single tear rolled down his face. It didn’t reflect a fear of death because David knew that death would bring a welcome ending. He was in no pain, as David considered himself above pain and suffering. David shed a tear of loneliness; a solitary tear.
So there we are! An original and a tidied up version. Which do you prefer? What (if anything) do you like about the cleaned up version? Leave me a comment and let me know!