You’ve written (perhaps over-written) a long first draft, but you have no idea where to start paring it down. You want to the strongest passages to shine. You want those sensory details to pop and make your readers see, hear, feel, taste, and smell what you’re showing them. You want the writing to be clear, and to flow.
To get there, to bring a messy first draft through its first round of revision, you need to be thinking about word economy.
When you approach revision, ask yourself the following questions: Am I repeating myself anywhere? Am I using clichés? Am I relying on telling too much, or could I use another detail or two? Is this word/phrase/sentence necessary? How can I say more with less?
Once you are in the mindset of making every word count, sit down with a hard copy of your draft, some highlighters, and some pens of varying colors. Ready? Because here is a practical, step-by-step guide for distilling your writing into the best version of itself, using the absolute best words.
Start with the action words
Pick up that highlighter and highlight every verb or verb phrase you have used. Verbs are your action words, and making the action words the strongest they can possibly be will strengthen any piece of prose. Consider this sentence: The girl rode her bike to the park as fast as she could. The verb is rode, and it’s a fine verb—but what else is going on in this story? Is she riding to meet her friends, or is she trying to get away from someone? Her mood informs the verb choice, so you can use the bigger picture to inform the synonym you will use to replace your verb.
Let’s say the girl is heading off to meet her best friend who was away at camp all summer. Besides a few emails, the friends haven’t spoken in two months. You might change rode to raced to show her eagerness to get there. There are other ways to show positive excitement, but for now, the verb change will suffice.
Trading in generic verbs for stronger ones might render other parts of your sentence or paragraph unnecessary or redundant. For example, in changing rode to raced, you eliminate the need to say as fast as she could. Raced implies both speed and superlative effort. If you had changed the verb from rode to pedaled, you could have eliminated the need to say her bike, but you might still need the phrase as fast as she could.
There are no right or wrong ways to distill this or any sentence, only different options that have different meanings. You have to decide what is the best option for the story you are telling—and that will always be the version that doesn’t use unnecessary words or say anything that’s already been said.
Find a better way to describe and give direction
Next on the chopping block are adverbs and prepositions. Sometimes we need them, but most of them time, there are more interesting ways to give description and direction. If your original draft said the girl quickly rode her bike, cut that quickly! In the process of choosing a better verb and eliminating redundant language, you’ll make your point that she was riding quickly.
Perhaps you are wondering how you could cut to the park and still say where your character is going. Is there a way to do it without using a prepositional phrase, and to show more than just tell that she’s going to the park?
Where does this girl live? What kind of neighborhood is it—a bustling city or a quaint rural town? Who or what does she see on the way? How far away is the park from her house? Showing the scene will get the girl to the park without actually having to say it (even if you have to use other, better prepositional phrases): The girl pedaled as fast as she could down the street, trees and mailboxes whizzing by before she rounded a corner and saw the community park’s sign.
Transform weak details into strong ones
The details in the sentence ground the scene and work harder to show action than the original, telling sentence of The girl rode her bike to the park as fast as she could. Could they do more? What kind of trees are they? Show us those mailboxes. Give this setting some personality: The girl pedaled as fast as she could down Birch Street, mature trees and quirky mailboxes whizzing by before she turned onto Walnut and the wooden sign with the rainbow-lettering came into view: Friends-Meet Community Park.
Now look at the bigger picture of this scene. The girl is hurrying to meet her friend. What else is going on? What can you show us that develops this girl’s character a little more? Maybe Mrs. Walker would be at farmer’s market so she could take a shortcut through the retired schoolteacher’s yard. This detail shows us the girl is a little bit daring, observant enough to know her neighbors’ routines and smart enough not to get caught. She’s probably a good kid who dabbles in mostly harmless rule-breaking; if you were peppering in personality-developing details about a true delinquent, she might smash Mrs. Walker’s begonias for the third time in a summer, right? And the detail about the park’s name might only be relevant if that particular park is relevant to the girl and her friend. Maybe they met at this park? If so, the park’s name is an important detail because it probably popped up elsewhere in the story. If not, cut it.
Practicing word economy
Practice these tips enough and you’ll start to make different and better word choices during the generative process, so the revision process won’t be so labor-intensive.
But no matter what stage of the process you’re in, your writing will be much improved by practicing word economy through eliminating generic, weak, and redundant words and phrases in favor of strong, evocative details.