When I began writing, I used to plough through drafts like a bulldozer, more obsessed with the word count than the quality of writing. Draft after draft, I’d rush to meet 1000 words a day, whether the words were good, bad or ugly. Now that I’ve calmed down about getting the novel finished, submitted and published (because what is the ACTUAL rush?), I’ve changed the way I write. This came from hearing many writers say “Make every word count”. It took me at least 2 years of writing to finally start listening to this advice, and here’s how I’m doing it:
Stick To The Story
One of the biggest writing sins I was guilty of, was going off in a tangent that had no relevance to the story. No matter how beautiful or funny your writing is, if you forget about the story, you will lose readers. I didn’t notice this problem in my own work at first; someone else had to point it out to me. But now that I know it, I stick to a story plan. If a chapter has no relevance and is not necessary to the rest of the story, then it has to go. No matter how beautifully it’s written.
Play With Poetry:
I started to write and read poems. This got me thinking about words in a new way. I started listening to their sounds, and experimenting with sentences. I let myself loose to play with words, and to trust my ability to get across my message without being blunt and over-obvious. This helped me bring out the beauty in a sentence, or the humour in a twisted phrase. Poems by the their nature are short, which meant I had to cut out waffle and too much description, and taught me how to get to the point in a neater, nicer fashion.
Study Other People’s Sentences:
I slowed down my reading. This helped me step back from the story, and allowed me to concentrate on what I liked in other people’s writing, and what I didn’t like. As I read, I ask myself, what makes a sentence bounce off the page and into my memory, and what makes it sink into the slush of ugly or over-used phrases?
Becoming aware of words I used repeatedly, helped me think outside the box. This wasn’t easy, and I occassionally have to ask other people to read my work to spot my repetitive words. I also started looking out for words that other writers use repeatedly. Some obvious words and phrases I spotted again and again in other people’s work were ‘suddenly’, ‘my heart thumped’ , and ‘Oh my God’. The less obvious ones were ‘ochre’, ‘sepia’, and variations of the moon like a ‘torch in the sky’. If you don’t recognise repetition, you can’t avoid using it.
When you keep reading the same old metaphors and similes, you start to skim over them, and they might as well not be there. There is nothing as smile-inducing as reading a book and finding original metaphors. Discovering a new way to express a feeling or a vision is one of my favourite parts of writing, and if I achieve only 10 words in a day, but I know they’re absolutely original, then that’s a happy day for me.
If I tried to make every word count from the beginning of my first draft, I’d never ever finish it. You have to pick your time to polish. I recently read an article by Ciara O’Connor, who concluded that when you stop trying to make your writing perfect, that’s when you find your flow. And I totally agree. I need to get my initial story down in a stream of consciousness, and then I can shape it. Just like a sculptor can’t start their work without a sizeable lump of clay. This might be two or three drafts in, once I know the story outline and the characters, and where I’m going with it. Only then can I start filtering the sentences until all the words left need to be there.
The longer I write, the better I get at making every word count. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a stage where everything I write is perfect. Does anyone? Have I ever read anything 100% perfect? Probably not. Art doesn’t have to be perfect to be lovely. Once I’ve got a piece of writing to the best I can get it, I recall my mantra “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (Da Vinci) and then I move on with the hope that even more words will count in my next piece.