Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.
We can overwrite, giving more information than necessary. But sometimes we also belabor the obvious by being unnecessarily specific. This post is about cutting unnecessary details.
Consider this paragraph from a first draft:
Charlie turned off the ignition, opened the driver’s side door, picked up the gun with his left hand, got out, and walked up the concrete sidewalk to the house. He pushed the doorbell with his finger, and waited. He pressed his right ear against the door. Hearing no one from inside the house, Charlie opened the front door.
When you’re self-editing, you need to look at your work critically to trim the fat, leaving juicy, lean prose. Here’s what my inner editor says as I notice the italicized words from the previous example:
- If you’re driving, what door would you obviously open other than the “driver’s side door”?
- Does it matter which hand he uses to pick up the gun?
- Aren’t sidewalks usually made of concrete? If this one isn’t, is it necessary to the story to describe what kind of sidewalk it is? Probably not.
- What else would he push the doorbell with?
- What would you do with the rest?
Too many unnecessary details, and you’re slowing down your prose. Excise them. Here’s the edited paragraph:
Charlie turned off the ignition, picked up the gun, and got out of the car. He walked up the sidewalk to the house, then pushed the doorbell and waited. He pressed his ear against the door. Hearing no one, he opened the door.
Here are a few more observations:
- A small frown appeared on her face. (Where else do frowns appear?) She frowned.
- He squinted his eyes. (What else do you squint with?) He squinted.
- She shrugged her shoulders. (What else do you shrug?) She shrugged.
- The boy nodded his head. (What else do you nod with?) The boy nodded.
- After she pulled up the chair, she sat on the seat. (Naturally…) She pulled up the chair and sat.
- An unknown stranger appeared at the door. (Are there any known strangers?)
- Their voices echoed back and forth in the dark corridor. (That’s what an echo does.)
- When Rocco was alone again, he muttered to himself, “I’ll never do that again.” (If he’s alone, who else would he be muttering to?)
- That’s not right, she thought to herself. (Who else do you think to, unless you’re telepathic?)
- “I’m through with you!” Joyce yelled. “You—”
“Don’t say that,” Kevin interrupted.
(The exclamation point tells us she’s yelling. The dash tells us that Kevin has interrupted her, so there’s no need to use the attributions. Stick with “said.”)
If reviewing these examples is lighting a bulb above your head, why not sit down with your current WIP and practice them?
Cut unnecessary details, and your prose will soar.