Two Ways to Tighten Your Writing

How many of us have heard these words?

“Don’t worry about making it flawless. Get words on the paper. You can come back and fix it later.”

This is helpful if you’re stuck, if you can’t think of the perfect way to say what’s on your mind. But it often leaves us a page bloated with extra words. And those words slow our readers down.

So, yes, go ahead and do a brain dump. Get everything on the page. But be prepared for some serious chopping when you return the next day wearing your editor’s hat.

There are two places you can tighten your writing. One is the use of dialogue tags. The other is by eliminating unnecessary, filler words.

What is a dialogue tag?

dialogue tags | Author, editor, caffeine-addict, wannabe ninja

This is how we attribute our conversation in our story. It’s the “she said” and “he asked” bits that follow the dialogue. Sometimes dialogue tags are necessary. If you have several people talking at once, your reader needs a tag to know who said what. But most of the time, our conversations are taking place between two people. If your writing is clear, your reader will understand which character is saying the words. If you add “he said” after each utterance, it bogs your reader down.

Instead, replace the dialogue tags with action beats. The action beat describes what your character does while he is speaking. The action beat adds flavor and depth to the scene, without slowing the reader with unnecessary words. Compare these examples.

Example 1:
“Hey, Manny,” called Jonathan, riding a few paces behind. “You think we will be home in two weeks? I’m ready for a bed and a pillow made of feathers instead of a saddle.”

“Hard to say,” replied Manny. He smiled to himself, knowing Jonathan was fretting about a girl.

Jonathan calls. Manny replies. But won’t your reader get that, without being told? Compare to this, where I replaced my dialogue tags with action beats.

“Hey, Manny.” Jonathan rode his horse a few paces behind. “How much longer ’til we’re home? Two weeks? I’m ready for a bed. And a pillow made of feathers. Not a saddle.”

“Hard to say.” Manny glanced over his shoulder. “It’s a bed you’re pining for? I’d be willing to bet money it’s something else. Like, I don’t know… a girl?”

“A girl?” A derisive snort accompanied Jonathan’s reply. “No, I’m just tired of eating your cooking.”

Let’s try another one. See what you think.

Example 2:

Jonathan narrowed his eyes at his friend then grinned, waggling his eyebrows. “Maybe she likes men who are earthy,” he said, waving his hand in front of himself as if he were showcasing a valuable treasure.

“Maybe she likes men who don’t smell,” Manny replied.

OK. Jonathan said. Manny replied. Totally unnecessary words. My readers know that from the context of the scene. What if I tighten the writing by removing the dialogue tags?

Jonathan narrowed his eyes at the insult. He grinned, waggling his eyebrows. “Maybe she likes men who are earthy.” He waved his hand in front of himself as if he were showcasing a valuable treasure.

“Maybe she likes men who don’t smell.” Manny’s voice was dry.

With Jonathan’s conversation, removing the dialogue tag tightened the writing. With Manny’s, using the action beat added some flavor to the scene. We hear his sarcasm, start understanding the camaraderie between the two friends.

What about the filler words?

Fillers are words we probably say a lot while we talk but don’t really need when we write. These are words like: just, very, really, a lot, kind of, a little, sort of, maybe. Why force your reader to slog through these words like wading through little puddles of quicksand?


Listen to Grady talk to Abby. He has fillers in there.

“I guess I need to hunt,” Grady answered. “Why don’t I go while you and Sarah get some breakfast for the Littles? Maybe by the time everyone has eaten, I’ll be back. Don’t wait for me if you’re ready to pull out.”

If we eliminate the unnecessary words, we get this:

“I need to hunt. Why don’t I go while you and Sarah get breakfast for the Littles? By the time everyone eats, I should be back. Don’t wait for me if you’re ready to pull out.”

They make rules in writing so we can break them, right? And these are no exception. Your character’s “voice” may need those words. If the dialogue sounds more genuine using fillers, keep them. But don’t leave them in the rest of the novel. It’s just a little bit annoying to have to read through those little extras. Really.

What editing nightmare do you routinely create for yourself? Let’s compare. We can make a list of things to avoid.

Here is a link to a website with more discussion about filler words:    

6 Replies to “Two Ways to Tighten Your Writing”

  1. Hi Paula another very helpful article. When I first started writing I fell foul of the get it all down on paper & fix it later mantra. All I can say is it might work for some, but not others. Some very useful tips on tightening up and making things look more professional. Thank you.

    1. I agree, Peter. I usually write something in the evening, then pull that document back up the next day and read through it with a critical eye. Editing the previous day’s work is what starts my new day.

  2. All good lessons Paula! Especially the filler words. I have a list which I use to look for these on a regular basis. It’s a bit like (ha ha) the over-use of ‘that’ and ‘but’ – not fillers, just words it’s too easy to throw into every other sentence…

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