Have you seen that student meme making its way around social media – the one where essay writers are jokingly urged to increase their word count to the required figure by innocently repeating words here and there? I’m sure no dedicated scholar would ever stoop so low, but we have all come across repeated definite articles – especially at the end and beginning of a line. That sort of thing will increase the word count of a novel by perhaps a dozen words, but getting rid of the odd ‘the’ isn’t what I’m talking about (don’t get me wrong, though – we copy-editors do tackle that kind of thing).

You would imagine that, in any novel, the words are the most important constituent part. That is true to a large degree (after all, we wouldn’t have any novels at all if we didn’t have words to play with). But I’m here to tell you that the most important part of a novel is the story, and how it’s told. Think about it – when you bought or rented your house, did you stand outside and count the bricks? No: you looked at the overall effect. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is no exaggeration to say that too many words, especially too many unnecessary words, will slow the pace of a book to the extent that a reader may cast it aside on the grounds that it’s boring or slow. This is particularly important in a thriller.

George Orwell famously said ‘Never use a long word where a short one will do.’ Why do we need to be told that a character noticed evidence of precipitation, rather than that he saw it had been raining? Clearly, the former would be at home in a geographical treatise, but not in a romantic novel. And, unfortunately, the long word chosen is not always quite correct in context. Orwell also said ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ In her essay collection Lunch with a Bigot, Professor Amitava Kumar gives very similar advice.

Some of my authors have noticed their 90,000-word novel coming back to them at just over 80,000 (see, I wasn’t joking when I used ‘decimate’ in my title). This is because I’ve cut out the dreaded repeated or favourite words and phrases (writer tics), but I’ve also cut filler or filter words. These are words that distance the action from the actor, and thereby the reader from the plot. They slow the pace of the story and trip the reader up, especially in close POV. Have you ever read a wordy sentence and had to go over it several times to work out the gist? That’s what I mean.

Imagine yourself on a wet afternoon, at home with nothing much to do. You have internal thoughts and drives, as we all do, and you may (like me) express these aloud to the dog. Do you say, ‘I’ve decided to go and make a cup of tea’? No – you say, ‘I’m making a cup of tea.’ Do you later say, ‘I’m starting to feel sad at that movie I decided to watch’? No – you say, ‘I feel sad after watching that movie.’ The verb ‘to feel’ can be a filter word in itself – something to watch out for in writing. Did your character feel angry? Better: he was angry.

A few more filter words and phrases: began to, that, very (instead of very pretty, use beautiful; instead of very scared, use terrified), adjective-looking noun (slim-looking man. He’s either slim or he’s not), finally (it’s not, usually), suddenly, brief (moment – they’re mostly brief), almost, actually, rather, really, fairly, could + verb (e.g. could hear, could see), and … err… um (don’t hold the reader up with verbal tics). The great verb ‘to be’ is often dragged into this scenario, with unnecessary repetitions of ‘who was/were’.

I have written a particularly awful piece of prose which in my imagination comes from a Bond-esque thriller:

‘Bob could hear explosions going off all around him and he knew immediately that he needed to escape as soon as he possibly could. He moved quickly towards the nearest staircase and looked up. He could see that the exit was blocked by fallen stones and bits of building. He wondered how he was going to get away and rescue all those people at the same time. He felt concerned as he stood there thinking while he took off his tattered jacket. He studied his surroundings and noticed some smoke disappearing through a two-foot-long, three-inch-wide gap somewhere near the ceiling. We could get out that way, he thought to himself. He finally had an escape plan!’ (120 words)

And here’s an edited version (okay, I know, it’s still pretty bad):

‘There were explosions all around Bob – escape was vital, and the sooner the better. He ran to a staircase and looked up. The exit was blocked by debris. How was he going to get all those people out? He discarded his tattered jacket, thinking furiously. He looked around and noticed some smoke disappearing through a small gap near the ceiling. That was their escape route!’ (65 words)

Can you see what I mean?

Your intention is to produce a page turner, not a put downer. To use the oft-repeated advice to writers: kill your darlings – and remember that the darlings can be words as well as characters.

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