Many thanks to Shayla Eaton of Curiouser Editing for contributing to this post.
Kill your darlings and then hug them tightly.
Well. That's a morbid image, isn't it? Luckily we're talking about writing. When I first heard the advice to kill ten percent of your manuscript during the second draft, I gasped.
Then I submitted to wisdom, though it hurt to do so.
That's why they call it killing "darlings" because we love each and every word we type, regardless of whether it doesn't work, makes a sentence too wordy, or just plain sucks.
The first time I went about it the wrong way. I started chopping any word I thought the story could live without, which is technically right. But I should have taken it a step further.
What I should have done (and what I do religiously now) is look for sentences that can be condensed. While there is a fair amount that can just go, there are words that I can alter or combine and it will tighten the story. I have found (in reading and writing) that it's better to say more with less.
Before: Beth had knowledge of the termites, due to the fact that she had purchased an older home. She decided to utilize her free hotel night so the bug men could rid her home of them, despite the fact that she didn’t want to sleep on a lumpy bed. In the event that the hotel were booked, Beth could stay with her sister. (62 words)
After: Beth knew about the termites because she had purchased an older home. She used her free hotel night so the bug men could kill them, even though she didn’t want to sleep on a lumpy bed. If the hotel were booked, Beth could stay with her sister. (47 words)
Doing this gives me a chance to make sure I am getting across exactly what I mean the reader to see.
I look for overuse of and. There are many opportunities to get rid of it, even mid-sentence.
She didn’t know how long she’d been there. The light began to fade; it was colder. She blinked, held her head, and sighed.
I was able to eliminate one between blinked and held, fade and it, leaving only one in three sentences.
I look for more than two adjectives or any fancy word that can be replaced with a simple one.
Her eyes were swollen, her face sallow and blotchy.
It's tempting to say "Her eyes looked like she hadn't slept a wink, swollen and red. Her skin looked a jaundice yellow decorated with red spots."
Those are wasted words. I wouldn't be laser focusing my reader on what I wanted them to see.
The bulk of the work is in narration. Every word counts and every word should be considered. Some other things I look for are the use or overuse of suddenly or then. I tend to get stuck on a phrase and without thinking about it, I'll use something to death. Lisa pointed out in my book 1931, I used "and then" a million times. Actually, it was 147. That's one every other page! I cut almost all of them and instantly trimmed three hundred words.
I also avoid suddenly. If a killer comes around the corner or a bookshelf and all its contents fall over, it's not going to happen slowly. Trust that your reader knows the basic laws of physics and murder.
Here are some more weasel words to eliminate from your writing:
Look at every word to see if it is really needed. Look at adjectives to see if they can be reduced or multiples replaced with a single powerful one. (Not fancy—powerful.) Paint a picture with your words but don't smother the canvas in paint. Killing darlings and tightening sentences will help paint a clearer picture.
My first draft of 1929 Book One was 224K words. I wheedled it down to 189k. Then Curiouser Editing found another 4k words it was better off without. Don't be afraid to cut ten percent or more. Your work will be better for it.
Hemingway said, "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."