Thursday, January 29, 2015

Breaking News: “Inflate-gate” expands!

By Michael Ehret

Are you over-inflating your writing?
This national story just in: Many, if not all, of your favorite authors have admitted to inflating the word counts of their latest novels, particularly in their early drafts! In fact, so widespread is this padding of novels—what is being informally referred to as “Inflate-gate”—that if you’re a writer, chances are the novel you’re working on right now is a bloated, over-written mess.

Why would authors, whose names you’d recognize if I named them, engage in this practice? After all, they’re already good enough that they don’t need the extra words to compete on the literary playing field.

What is their the motivation? Is it an inherent wordiness? A lust for the written word? A case of bibliophiles gone mad?

Or is it more? Is it just part of the process?

Tight writing

While the rest of the world is watching Tom Brady and Bill Belichick (from that football team on the East Coast) deny any and all knowledge of “Deflate-gate,” even as they throw each other under the bus in doing so, writers worldwide are battling inflated word counts, muddied prose, their own egos—and in some cases deadlines—to wrestle their novels into a more marketable size.

They are trying to write tight and edit even tighter. It's called self-editing. However, because of all the research, planning, plotting, exploring, and experimenting we writers like to do, we tend to think everything has to make it in the book. But that defeats tight writing.

All of these things can help cause inflation
What is tight writing? Simply, it is writing that uses every word necessary to tell the story, engage the reader, and impact the emotions—and not one word more. In tight writing, paragraphs don’t meander and sentences don’t lead readers astray.

Tight writing wins contests, agents, contracts, readers, and awards. Tight writing rocks.

Know word definitions

Redundancy is a big problem for many trying to write tight. Can you spot the redundancies in this sentence?
  • Mandy was absolutely certain her advance planning would pay off when she got to the final conclusion of her first fiction novel. (22 words)
  • Mandy was absolutely certain her advance planning would pay off when she got to the final conclusion of her first fiction novel. (18 words)
This ham-handed example sentence could still be much improved, but just eliminating the redundancies helps. It’s important to know the definition of a word and to choose the right word.

There is no doubt in certainty, so it is already absolute. All planning is done in advance; by definition it can’t be done in the past. Unless you’re filming The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King when you come to the conclusion, you’ve reached the end. All novels are fiction. There are no nonfiction novels.

Inflation is subtle

Unlike deflated footballs, which was almost certainly done on purpose by someone, over the course of a book it is easy to unintentionally inflate your word count. This example isn't egregious, but imagine how many words you can save over the course of a book?
  • Before the conference, Jim created a summary of his story. (10 words)
  • Before the conference, Jim summarized his story. (7 words) 

Help from the experts

I asked several author and editor friends for their top of mind tips to help writers with “Inflate-gate.” Here are tips from those who’ve been there and will be there again—just like you. I actually received more than 30 suggestions, but I'm trying to write tight.

Kimberley G. Graham

KGG is a member of my critique group, Thesaurus Wrecks, and the author of one of the finest books I read in 2013, The Rocking Horse of Tuscumbia

“To trim the fat, delete the ‘that’.” 

Pamela S. Meyers

Pam is a member of another critique group I’m part of, Penwrights, and the author of Love Finds You in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

“One method a friend shared with me when I had to cut down my word count was to divide the number of the current word count by the number of pages in the manuscript. That is the amount of words needing to be cut on each page to make the desired number. It really helps when you see it’s only seven words a page or whatever. Makes it less overwhelming and more doable.”

What I like about this tip is that it’s not a writing tip, per se, but an execution tip. Self-editing can be intimidating. Tips like this help, too.

Michelle Griep

Michelle is another Penwrights member of renown and the author of Brentwood’s Ward

“Get rid of stupid, unnecessary words like ‘like, really, that,’ etc. And don’t use so many adjectives like ‘stupid’ and ‘unnecessary’. Nouns and verbs are where it’s at, baby.”

Dori Harrell

Dori is a member of the Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network and the proprietor of Breakout Editing

“Delete all those unnecessary tags we authors seem to insert like ‘to himself,’ as in ‘he thought to himself.’”

Margot Starbuck

Another member of the Christian PEN and the proprietor of Wordmelon Literary Consulting

“If it can be cut, and still retain the essential meaning, cut it. If it feels too difficult, consider highlighting the extraneous text in grey, and reading through what remains. If it's stronger (Hint: It will be), then delete the grey!”

That pretty much sums it up. Do you have other tips that you like? Share! Through sharing we all get better.

Michael Ehret loves to play with words as a Marketing Communications Writer for CHEFS Catalog and as a freelance editor at Ehret is the former editor of the ACFW Journal and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.


Sally Shupe said...

Love this post! Great tips.

Nicole said...

All I'd like to say is "tight writing" is based on opinion. Professional opinions galore, no doubt. And there is much merit to tight writing, but it's a slippery definition and usually the only readers who measure it are other authors, not the average reader. Some folks like meandering prose, don't even notice it. Others prefer the Hemingway style. It IS a matter of style. Some authors can pull it off - others not so much which is probably why this instruction exists. But this too is mere opinion.

Michael Ehret said...

Nicole, true, it is subjective. And if you're self-publishing, maybe not as big of a deal. There are readers who like meandering prose, but I'd guess there are fewer of them than people who appreciate tight writing, even if they don't identify it as such. Does the average reader count words? No. But they do know whether they're engaged or bored and whether the author seems to be rambling or not. They "measure it" by putting the book down or not buying another by that writer.

Also, tight writing doesn't have to mean short books. Stephen King does a pretty good job writing tight and he's written some of the longest books I've thoroughly enjoyed.

One thing I will always defend is the author's right to write in whatever way he or she deems will suit his or her readers. That's the job, after all.

Tight writing has proven to be one of the accepted "best practices" of the Communications industry and that is why I promote it.

Michelle Griep said...

Can I just say I love the name Margot Starbuck? Sounds like a superhero. Wait a minute. Delete the 'just' in that sentence. Might as well get rid of the 'Can I' and 'say' as well.

Michael Ehret said...

For someone with a Griep-y last name, I find this amusing.

Linda Yezak said...

Terrific article, complete with entertaining comments. I'll add Griepy to my lexicon . . .

Michelle Griep said...

That's it. You two cannot sit together anymore.

Ane Mulligan said...

Ha! Inflate-gate. I love it.

Terrie Todd said...

Nice work, Michael. (Tight enough?)

Ane Mulligan said...

Be careful, buddy. That's Genghis whose buttons you're pushing.

Ane Mulligan said...

High-five, Terrie! We've got to keep him in his place. No wait. He's a great editor. What am I thinking??

vanessacarroll said...

Great article! I appreciate the insight. Gets me in the mood to edit.

One part was a bit confusing though. Pamela Meyers said to take the word count of the book and divide it by the number of pages in the book, then delete that amount of words on each page. You would have no words left. Maybe I'm missing something...

Michael Ehret said...

Ha! That's a great point, Vanessa! Maybe she'll chime in here. What I UNDERSTOOD her to say, was take the number of words that need to be cut and divide THAT number by the total page count.

For example, if you have 100,000 words and need to get it down to 95,000 words, you would divide 5,000 (the extra words) by the total number of pages (appx 400 for that size of manuscript) and you'd get 12.5 words per page to eliminate.

Vanessa said...

Ha! That's what I figured she was getting at too. That's a great way to do it. A lot less overwhelming than looking at the big number of words that need to be cut.

Michael Ehret said...

Some editor should have caught that ... oh, wait ... :(