Verbal Fitness

If the ads you’ve been seeing since Christmas are like the ones I have, you can’t miss the message. We’re entering a new year—time to get in shape. Buy this equipment (like what you see at garage sales) and you’ll become slim and happy.

If only it were that easy. Our lifestyle (and the physique it produces) consists of countless habits. Try to change them all at once and we’re almost doomed to fail. But focus on one or two things, and there’s hope.

The same goes for our writing. Extra words creep into our prose—then go unnoticed as we edit. Sentence by sentence, they add up. Extra, superfluous, unnecessary, repetitive, redundant words—that duplicate a point you’ve already made—act like verbal flab.

If your New Year’s resolutions includes more vigorous writing, let me highlight two habits that often bloat prose:

Subtle redundancies

He blinked his eyes. (What else?) She paced back and forth. (Not up and down?) He thought to himself (He’s not a telepath?)

Sometimes we even write triples: He unlocked the door with the key in his hand. Unless your character is a burglar or a spy, why add obvious details?

Double dialogue attributions

If the context doesn’t inform readers who is speaking, use either a dialogue tag (Melanie said) or a “beat”/action tag (Melanie put on her coat).

Don’t make a habit of using both: “Let’s take a walk,” Melanie said, putting on her coat.

Two little writing habits—easy to catch as you edit.

Try looking for just one in your writing this week. Then next week. And the week after. It might become a new habit.

Andy Scheer, editor-in-chief for the Christian Writers Guild, also serves as a freelance book editor and an agent with Hartline Literary.

Photo credit: © Warren Goldswain –


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