Three steps to a smoother writing style

317528561_6f008366a3_zThis week Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to talk about writing style and voice, which you can see in a few weeks’ time. We got so involved in the subject that we didn’t finish her question list and this point didn’t make the cut. So I thought it would make a useful post.

Joanna asked me to pinpoint a few easy style fixes – so here they are.

1 Ditch the filler words

Look at this:

Paul had told me on the phone during our initial contact that he had been swindled several years before by a man who he had considered to be a friend.

Quite a mouthful for such a simple point. Give me my red pen.

What worries me here is the number of syllables. They slow the sentence in the reader’s mind. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes those syllables are unnecessary speed bumps. Here goes.

Paul had [told me] said

Yes, there’s a difference between ‘told me’ and ‘said’. But is it important here? I don’t think it is, and I want to get to the main meat about the swindling friend. ‘Said’ will do that faster.

[during] at

No need to say ‘during’. ‘At’ is fine. One syllable saved.

our [initial] first contact

Wow, three syllables in ‘initial’. ‘First’ is just one. But ‘initial’ might fit better with the personality of the writer, character or narrative, so that’s an optional change.

 that [he had] he’d been swindled several years before

Your high school English teacher probably told you contractions had no place in printable English. Ignore her.

by a man [who] he had considered [to be] a friend.

Two more little words that didn’t have to be there.

2 Prune unnecessary detail

[on the phone]

Does it matter whether the statement was made on the phone or in person? Probably not. In any case, this detail is not really noticed when handled like this. If it’s important that the conversation was on the phone, I’d make the point in a separate sentence. So I’m stripping it out of here.

And so we have:

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

What didn’t I get rid of? The first ‘had’ – as the tense might be relevant. And the ‘that’. Although you can often remove a ‘that’, sometimes they are necessary for the sense. As this one is.

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

See how much smoother it is? Now you can see the important stuff – about Paul being swindled.

Step 3 –jazz up your verbs

Verbs are your propellant. I was coaching a thriller writer and his main style problem was slow sentences. I showed him this passage from one of his favourite writers, Stephen White. This is from Kill Me. (I’ve emphasised the verbs):

He was leaning forward and gazing over the westbound lanes, his elbows resting on a fence, his right hand pressing a mobile phone to his ear….

Slick verbs can make a long sentence effortless…

I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Many writers think a fast style comes from short sentences. But long sentences can read speedily too. The verbs drive it.

Notice also that there aren’t any adverbs in these passages. Adverbs aren’t forbidden, but there’s usually a slicker way. If you use an adverb, you add a second step to the thought. Sometimes you want that emphasis, but usually you’re better finding a dynamite verb.

Those 3 steps in summary

1 Cut the unnecessary syllables. Listen to the beat of the sentence. Make every syllable count.

2 Remove unnecessary detail so the point of the sentence can shine.

3 Rock your verbs.

Thanks for the pic, Nicholas A Tonelli on Flickr

Anything to add? Are there any style ‘rules’ you think are useful and any you think are questionable? Are there any you’ve had to ‘unlearn’?


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  1. #1 by Kim Knight_Author (Romance/Suspense & Crime Fiction Writer) on July 10, 2016 - 10:18 am

    Thanks for sharing! Good advice especially with the verbs and cutting down the sentences.

  2. #3 by Teddi Deppner on July 10, 2016 - 3:09 pm

    I edit this way somewhat by instinct, so I appreciate seeing the step-by-step break down. Thanks, Roz!

  3. #5 by Michael W. Perry on July 10, 2016 - 6:32 pm

    Quote: “He was leaning forward and gazing over the westbound lanes, his elbows resting on a fence, his right hand pressing a mobile phone to his ear….”

    Sorry, but if I began a book that was that overly descriptive, it’d already be in trouble. One more passage like that and I’d toss it aside. I’m not going to expend the effort this author is demanding to picture a scene in such excessive detail. What color was his shirt? His pants? His undies? Did he need a shave? What sort of shoes was he wearing? The author could go on and on with pointless detail. None of it matters. At least he spared us how many west-bound lanes, the kind of fence, and the brand of cell phone. Of that we can be glad.

    That may just be a taste issue, but all that leaning, gazing, resting, and pressing leaves me wondering if he has anything to say. If the basic event mattered, I’d prefer, “Watching the westbound traffic, he chatted with…”

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 10, 2016 - 6:49 pm

      Well, tastes differ, obviously.

      • #7 by mrdisvan on July 11, 2016 - 6:36 pm

        Yes, and you’ve got to take that passage in context. The narrator is observing this guy from a distance – and it’s not the opening of the book. When it comes to thrillers, White knows what he’s doing.

  4. #8 by Laura on July 10, 2016 - 11:28 pm

    I’m looking forward to hearing your upcoming interview on The Creative Penn podcast! The first interview you did with Joanna is one of my favorite Creative Penn podcasts. I also love your Nail Your Novel books–hoping you’ll come out with a volume 4 sometime soon!

    • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 11, 2016 - 8:55 am

      Thanks, Laura! I’ve got more Nail Your Novel ideas in the pipeline, so stay tuned.

  5. #10 by tracikenworth on July 11, 2016 - 12:40 am

    This is really helpful!! Thanks!!

  6. #13 by Don Massenzio on July 11, 2016 - 12:56 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  7. #16 by dgkaye on July 12, 2016 - 2:01 am

    Excellent demo Roz. 🙂

  8. #19 by adeleulnais on July 12, 2016 - 7:22 am

    Great advice thank you especially about the usage of verbs.

  9. #21 by ParallelLookingGlass on July 13, 2016 - 10:37 pm

    Nice article. I really liked your great use of examples to exemplify your point.

  10. #23 by jrhandleyblog on July 21, 2016 - 3:11 am

    Thanks for the great advice, I will give it a shot as I edit my stuff! 🙂

  11. #25 by jrhandleyblog on July 21, 2016 - 3:12 am

    Thank you for the great advice, I will give it a shot! 🙂

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