Creative writing students – and authors too – may struggle with managing the content of their stories. Many aspects of creative writing can throw up problems. In this post, I’m going to address word count.
Your piece may have far too many words – words that are not working hard enough to support the story, words that are choking the life out of the plot, words that lie around like flabby seals waiting for a high tide to bring some excitement. Other writers may sit down to write 1000 words and find that only 400 arrive, creeping with painstaking slowness onto the page like a warren of shy baby rabbits who would much rather avoid the light of day. What to do?
Too many words? Too few words? Here are a few small techniques to help you develop your writing into the fluent, engaging text you want.
TOO MANY WORDS – some tried and true ways to cut out the dross:
- Identify the adverbs (-ly words) – the words which describe actions. Adverbs sneak in and can often cause your story to slow down. Try to replace them with more active words (verbs). For example, ‘She walked as quickly as she could to the gate’ would be much shorter and more energetic as ‘She dashed to the gate’. You can reduce your word count a lot with this single technique.
- Identify the adjectives – the words which describe objects and people. Are they piling up and becoming ineffective? See if you can make it punchier. ‘The long winding path with waving grasses at either side leads to a long low white-painted building with glossy black paint around the windows and on the door’ could become ‘The path wove through wind-swept tussocks to the neat white cottage’. Making your adjectives scarcer and making them work harder is an effective way to reduce word count.
- Look at your longer sentences – are you starting with an introduction that gradually leads us into the action point of the sentence? First try cutting your sentences into shorter sections – one sentence may become as many as five. Do you need them all? Are they all strong? Do they all do a good amount of work? Cut what you can, and then try putting that long sentence back together again.
- Don’t be afraid to use the thesaurus – but don’t just throw in a word unless you know the meaning of it either! Check out alternative ways to express ideas – for example, ‘She yelled “Help!” at the top of her voice’ could become ‘She shrieked for help’.
TOO FEW WORDS – some tried and true ways to grow your story:
- Look at alternatives. Is anything happening? If you are running short on words, consider whether there is enough of interest to sustain your piece of creative writing. Think about creating conflict – test out what would happen if you took an alternative point of view. For example, you may be describing a return to your childhood home and saying how small and sad everything looks. Full stop? Not necessarily! Think about the contrast you have just implied – now it is small and sad, but hat was it then? Start writing: ‘I didn’t always see home this way. When I was young…’
- Check your sentences. Look at your sentence length – are you starting with an introduction that gradually leads us into the action point of the sentence? First try cutting your long sentences into shorter sections – one sentence may become as many as five. Do you need them all? Are they all strong? Do they all do a good amount of work? Cut what you can, and then try putting that long sentence back together again. Are you piling up the short sentences? Try connecting them – do they add, contrast, or elaborate on each other?
- Mix long and short sentences in the one paragraph. After a long sentence, write a short one that brings the information together or reflects on it. For example, you have just written a long sentence using the polysyndeton device (lots of conjunctions) such as ‘I stumbled over books and toys and cups and papers and cushions and crumpled rugs and one very angry cat as I went to my grandmother’s chair’. Instead of going on to another long sentence, put in a reflection: ‘I felt awkward’; ‘The mess was threatening’; ‘Grandma scoffed at me’; ‘My cat allergy kicked in’. You get the idea!
- Set the mood with elaboration. Have a look at your piece and decide whether it could benefit from some decoration – some more poetic words or sensory images that could add to the tone of the story. This is the time to bring in those similes and metaphors, those comparisons and reflections, contrasts and emphases. You may have noticed that I popped in some cheeky similes in my intro (‘like flabby seals’; ‘like a warren of shy rabbits’) to lighten up my serious advice. Ask yourself questions such as ‘what was it like, what did it remind me of, what did it resemble?’ Think about what comparisons or contrasts could be made, using prompts such as ‘what would the opposite be? what would make me remember this scene – a scent, a colour, a sound? what would this scene make me feel like?’
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts with quick tips on creative writing. I hope you enjoyed it! Please use the comments section for any questions or comments. Happy writing 🙂