16 Tips on Tightening Your Writing

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

William Strunk Jr. in Elements of Style

What is tighter writing?

The above quote from the classic reference book on writing well gives a decent definition of tight writing.

In short, tighter writing is powerful writing.

Tight writing accomplishes your purposes for it because it is well crafted and carefully thought out.

Hint: very few people naturally write in a concise manner.

What does this mean?

Before we jump into the tips on tighter writing, let’s discuss when this kind of writing might not be what you’re looking for …

Tight writing versus writing in your voice

A writing voice.

A writing style.

Every writer has one, and a writer’s style can also change and grow.

Several years ago, I was reading everything I could get my hands on by a newly-favorite author. In my own writing, I began to notice my style changing.

That way, you’ll glean wording and syntax and styles from the writers you like best and, with that, develop a voice of your very own.

And your voice might not be the perfect example of “tight writing.”

Case in point: one of my favorite authors: Frederick Buechner.

I know I’m not the only one who loves his writing because he is one of the most widely quoted contemporary authors I know of.

Of course, he can write succinctly:

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Frederick Buechner, in Beyond Words

Or one of my very favorite quotes of all time:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Frederick Buechner, in Wishful Thinking

But he can also meander through his thoughts and end up with a very wordy paragraph:

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.”

Frederick Buechner, in A Room Called Remember

If William Strunk Jr had been Frederick Buechner’s editor, he might have cut the above quote to half its length.

But it would have had half its power because, for all its wordiness, it’s Frederick Buechner’s style.

His voice.

So, with these tips on tightening your writing, keep in mind that good writing is knowing the rules (and the suggestions) …

And then knowledgeably bending those rules when it fits and flows.

How can you make your writing tighter?

Avoid redundant words.

First of all, try not to write the same thing twice.

A pleonasm is a phrase that repeats itself, like “nine am in the morning,” “I heard it with my own ears,” or even “tuna fish.”

Unless you’re keeping it for an intentional poetic or alliterative purpose, watch out for redundant wording.

Here are a few common redundancies:

Reduce phrases and clauses.

Some clauses and phrases can be pared down or even trimmed to a single word.

Clauses with “which” and “who” can often be rephrased for tighter writing:

George Washington, who was the first president of the United States, was said to have cut down a cherry tree which was growing in his parents’ backyard.

This can be shortened to:

George Washington, first president of the United States, was said to have cut down a cherry tree growing in his parents’ backyard.

Along the same lines, you can usually cut down “if” clauses or remove them all together:

If you want to write tightly, remember these rules.

Cut it to:

To write tightly, remember these rules.

Choose strong verbs.

Weak verbs are one of the main reasons lots of fiction (and nonfiction) feels dry and boring.

Whenever possible, a better verb is out there, just waiting.

Find it!

That said …

Choose the right word.

Don’t choose a really fancy and long verb just because it is fancy and long.

It needs to fit the action.

You don’t want to write, “Lucy sauntered down the path,” unless Lucy did, indeed saunter.

She might have skipped or stepped. She might have trudged. Or maybe she just walked.

Each of those words has both its own connotation and denotation.

Lucy might have skipped if she was a little girl …

Trudged if she was heading home after a long day at work …

Sauntered if she was on a leisurely stroll in the park on a Saturday afternoon.

You get the idea.

Use adverbs intentionally.

Stephen King famously wrote that the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

I’m not so sure.

I kind of like adverbs.

As you probably noticed, I’ve used an adverb in every sentence in this section … including this one.

It’s just my style.

That said, for tighter writing, you want to avoid overusing adverbs, especially the obvious type.

One place adverbs tend to get overused, especially for beginning writers, is in dialogue tags:

  • He asked inquisitively.
  • She answered thoughtfully.
  • He shouted angrily.

The adverbs above are redundant. If he’s shouting, the reader knows he is angry. If he’s asking a question, we know he is inquisitive.

Adding unnecessary adverbs is not only distracting, but can come across as patronizing as well.

Avoid jargon and fancy wording.

Sometimes a longer word is more precise and is the best word for the point you are trying to make.

But if your sentences are replete with such words, the text might come across as stuffy.

If you’re using a word that will likely make 80% of your readers need a dictionary, find a simpler one.

Do your readers a service by not showing off with your impressive verbiage. (See what I did there?)

On a similar note, avoid jargon, which is specialized terminology that people working in a certain field would understand, but most people would not.

Shorten overlong sentences.

Lengthy sentences run the risk of getting confusing and convoluted.

Avoid it altogether by keeping your sentences short.

Otherwise, if you choose to write a long sentence, and it has a lot of qualifiers and phrases, a lot of clauses and commas, even if the sentence is grammatically correct, you might end up losing your reader before you get halfway through it, and that’s not something you want to do, now, is it?

Avoid overusing punctuation.

We all have those bits of punctuation we love.

Mine is the en-dash, which is unfortunately difficult to add to a blog post, so I’m having to do without it for the most part.

Other people really like using “unnecessary” air quotes …

Or parentheses (even if they don’t really need it).

The thing about overusing punctuation is that it can be distracting for the reader.

When in doubt, don’t use it.

Use positive wording in your writing.

Using too many negatives in a sentence can confuse a reader or cause them to lose track of what you’re saying.

I’m not even talking about double negatives, because those are obvious and more or less cliché by now.

I’m talking about writing with negative wording:

It’s not that I’m not talking about using double negatives, but unless you really don’t want to avoid not losing readers, you’ll not want to put too many negatives in your sentences.

Got it?

(Neither did I.)

Cut down prepositional phrases.

Prepositional phrases add terrific detail, but they can be overused.

Too many prepositional phrases often means you’re trying to fit too many details into a single sentence.

In the middle of the winter in 1991 a girl from Minnesota moved to the center of New York City in the hopes of finding a new life.

Whoa! Way too many prepositional phrases!

How about:

In January, 1991, a Minnesota girl moved to New York City. She hoped to find a new life.

Write in active voice.

These days, grammar checkers can spot sentences written in passive voice, making it easier for you.

The main reason you want to avoid writing in passive voice is that your writing will simply be more interesting in active voice.

Passive voice can also end up more wordy, so if you want to tighten your writing, replace passive sentences with active ones.

Change sentences starting with “there is/there are” or “it is”

Any time a sentence starts with:

  • There is
  • There are
  • Here is
  • Here are
  • It is

… You can tighten that sentence and make it better:

There are twenty-five writers hoping to register for the Editing 101 class.

Shorten it to:

Twenty-five writers hope to register for the Editing 101 class.

A Few More Tips on Tightening Your Writing

If you have a first draft of a novel or essay, try these ways to tighten the wording in a Word Document or Google Doc.

Do a search for troublesome words.

Most of these words can be cut out altogether:

  • That
  • Thing
  • Very
  • Really
  • Just
  • Currently
  • Virtually

With the word “thing,” you can’t cut it … but you can probably find a better word than “thing.”

So find it and replace “thing” with a better word.

Find and trim your overused words.

We all have those words particular to us and our writing that we really need to cut down on.

In addition to the above list, some commonly overused words include:

  • Awesome
  • Amazing
  • Only

Read aloud to find errors.

Skimming the words silently will help, but reading your text aloud will show you errors and wordy sections that you missed the first or second time over.

Using read-aloud software can also help with this.

Get some outside help.

And a few more writing rules … just for fun: