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This month we have expert opinion from tutor Janie Jackson on the art of slicing irrelevancies from your writing in Gentle Surgery. Ten Top Tips covers getting an agent and there’s the usual inspiration and useful websites.

The Gentle Art of Surgery

By Janie Jackson

Are you drunk with words? If you’re so much of a wordaholic that the mere suggestion of making deletions in your work seems like sacrilege, read on.

One of the first lessons learned by any journalist is ‘writing to space’. This means pruning your writing to fit the allotted space in the publication. Don’t send a 2500 word story to a magazine in which the average length is 1500. If you do, the editor will automatically reach for a rejection slip.

Cut your work to the bone and your acceptance rate will soar. This doesn’t necessarily entail deleting whole paragraphs or even sentences. It’s often a matter of re-arranging words and deleting those left over.

A common weakness is the use of the three words it was in (on) – as in ‘It was on January 20, 2009 that Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America'. Change this to 'Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States on January 20, 2009'.

Similarly, avoid the ubiquitous There were (was) as in 'There were two men sitting on chairs in the corner'. Render this as 'Two men were sitting in the corner' and again, you improve the sentence and cut extraneous words. If it’s not important what the men are sitting on, don’t mention it, the reader will surely assume that they are sitting on chairs. Write clear, direct sentences and don’t state the obvious.

Allied to these weaknesses is the habit of repetition. Don’t write 'Jed’s face was sweating, perspiration dewed his forehead and his mouth was twisted with rage, his fists clenched. He was furious'. OK. That’s a pretty awful sentence anyway, but let’s consider it again. Jed has perspiration dewing his forehead so obviously his face was sweating. You can delete one of those phrases for a start. But then comes the statement he was furious. Oh dear! Here we have a character sweating, fists clenched, mouth twisted with rage – and the writer finds it necessary to explain that he was cross!

This, of course, is an extreme example and you may doubt that anyone would go so far O.T.T. Believe me – they do. They’re so wrapped up in their own stories, can picture their characters and feel their emotions so clearly, that they just let rip – and don’t even realise that they are over-icing the cake.

Probably the most effective sentence in the English language is 'Jesus wept'. Yet some writers would have tears streaming down his face, shaking shoulders, and heart-wrenching sobs – thereby destroying the stark simplicity of those two words.

Try to avoid other instances of repetition. Some of these occur particularly in stories for children. Don’t – please don’t – refer to little tiny baby lambs. This is repetition at its worst, since lambs are, by definition, baby sheep. Furthermore, the words little and tiny are almost synonymous. What’s more – all babies can be described as little or tiny. As you see, adjectives are particularly dangerous in this respect. A good rule of thumb is to use only one adjective per description, thereby avoiding repetition. Mark Twain wrote ‘If you come across an adjective – shoot it!’ I won’t go that far, but use them sparingly.

Avoid, too, the use of ‘nothing’ words. Three that immediately spring to mind are very, quite and just. Sure, we use them frequently in day-to-day conversation, but what do they mean? If a dog is very large, the word huge is surely more appropriate and evocative. What height is quite tall? And if your heroine is just coming, what is her estimated time of arrival?

Don’t get carried away with detail. However beautiful the sunset across the bay, it’s a mistake to write 500 words about it. Your reader has an imagination. Stimulate it with a few well-chosen words and allow them to do the rest. You don’t need to detail every movement your heroine makes when she goes from one location to another. And when she pours a glass of milk, there’s no need to explain how she does it.

Finally, steer clear of ‘fancy’ words like peruse in favour of ordinary ones like read.

The bride doesn’t proceed down the aisle – she walks. You may love long and ‘literary’ words, but bear in mind that if your reader doesn’t understand them, they’re going to feel inadequate. Resolve here and now (and there’s a redundant phrase, if you like) to learn the gentle art of surgery. You’ll find that being ruthless can be fun!

Janie was first published when she was eight years old and is still writing. With her husband, Cass, she runs a writers' advisory service – www.flair4words.co.uk - and publishes a bi-monthly writing magazine. They have published 14 books in the Mind, Body and Spirit genre. Janie became a tutor for The Writers Bureau in 2006.