Almost every writer, even professionals, makes two very basic mistakes in a first draft. First, they begin their story in the wrong place. Second, they use way too many words to communicate what they need to say. Both issues lead to inflated word count – a not-necessarily-bad thing back in the day, when per-word pay rewarded higher word count with a higher paycheck, but a terrible thing today when every second in our lives counts.


Starting the Story

If you have participated in a writing workshop in the last fifty years ago, you’ve learned all about the hook – a line that forces the reader to ask a question, making it feel imperative that he read on to find the answer.

Okay, sure. But how hooky is this?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

This first line to Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is possibly the most famous opening line in fiction today – but it’s not enormously compelling, not the way these hooks are. And yet these hooks are just generic examples, not the beginnings of stunningly good literature. My point is that the hook is little more than a fun little writing workshop exercise that gives beginning writers an unearned sense of accomplishment – not a critical element of your story. Occasionally a great hook is useful. For the most part, though, you will not finish the story you wrote the hook for. That makes it a waste of time.

You know what is important? Getting right into the action. Every story is built around a character and/or narrator in terrible, terrible trouble, physically, emotionally, spiritually or all three. He’s being hunted down by an international crime boss, or she’s just gotten out of the world’s worst relationship, or he is the Chosen One and the Big Bad Wizard will kill him if given a chance. The more quickly you can establish this problem, the easier it is to draw the reader into your world – to enchant him, in a manner of speaking.

And yet most writers spend paragraphs or pages or even chapters clearing their throats! That is what readers refer to, in Amazon reviews, as “it was slow to get started, but then it really picked up.”

Ask yourself: are you getting right into the story with your opening paragraph? Or are you just clearing your throat? Try cutting the first paragraphs – scenes – chapters without losing too much information (insert it later if necessary as backstory). See if your story reads better and moves more quickly when you do this. If the answer is yes, you are starting in the wrong place. Fix it.


Words, Words, Words

Next, take a look at your content ratio – how many words carry information as opposed to how many words support that information. Visualize it as a word painting supported by word scaffolding: “to be” verbs along with prepositions, conjunctions, etc. are the scaffolding that supports your vivid nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Too much scaffolding, and you can’t see the painting – the art.

Anyway. Print out a page or two of your work in progress. Find a highlighter. Highlight every word that triggers an image in your mind.


When you’re done, how does the page look? Is it brightly colored, or is it just black and white with a few dabs here and there? If it’s the latter, and in most cases it will be, then you have too much scaffolding.

At this point, Editor Me generally tells a writer, while retaining as many highlit words/concepts as possible, to eliminate every single other word possible. I can usually give you a percentage to eliminate – between 20 and 40 percent, specifically – but most people need to cut about 30 percent, so that’s a good target.

When you’re done, reread what you have. It should be crisper, cleaner, and faster. Voila – a super-simple technique for tightening your writing.


Exercise: Take a work in progress and apply these two techniques to it. Post a before/after. When critiquing these, consider how improved the “after” version is and look at what, specifically, the writer did to improve his work. Discuss.


References: None this time, but if you want more great self-editing tips, I highly recommend Renni Browne & Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I learned a great deal from that book, and learn more every time I read it.



Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Photo by Free-Photos (Pixabay)