Writing tight and loving hard arses

Revise your work. Write tight. Kill your darlings. Schya! I believe in these tenents. I do. But actioning them can be easier said than done. When I’m at the tightening phase of my work I check against Sol Stein’s 'Solutions for Writers', ‘Liposuctioning Flab’ chapter. This chapter has helped to surgically remove some baaad writing habits. And I workshop, too. Still, I have a sense that my work remains flabby. There are love-handles hidden that I am yet to grasp.


‘I think it’s pretty hard to review your own work,’ says Ann Bolch, freelance Writer/Editor with ‘A Story to Tell…’ and ‘Clarity in Words’. I’ve known Bolch for a few years but it wasn’t until she reviewed my essay, ‘After shock’ that I realised she’s a literary nutritionist, a writing personal trainer. She grabbed those wordy love-handles and trimmed my essay.

While it’s true reviewing your own work is hard (distance and objectivity are often missing), Bolch gave me the kind of feedback that I take to every piece I write. She says that our common mistakes fall into a triad of ‘writing, trust and music’.

Review your work with these in mind to burn excess fat. I asked her to tell more and to edit this post to show you an exercise in writing tight.

‘Of course, writing is about the nuts and bolts. The grammar, the punctuation, the words ... and getting them in the right order,’ Bolch says. Failing to be tight on the writing level can make a piece, ‘just a bit overlong’. Beware of prepositions (for example ‘get up on top of’ when all we need is ‘get up’), adverbs (in ‘We finally wandered up the hill’ axe  ‘finally’) and superlatives.

Superlatives such as, ‘It was spectacular day’ take up too much space while at the same time getting in the way of description. Writers try to, ‘make sure that people understand where they’re going in the first sentence of a paragraph and then give a beautiful example. I call this a tell-show. Sometimes writers will even go the tell-show-tell just to make completely sure the reader has understood,’ says Bolch. We need to either tell or show. ‘If efficiency requires it, then tell. [There’s] nothing better than a quick this-is-what-we’re-talking-about to introduce [an idea],’ she says.

We should trust our readers says Bolch, ‘it’s also about trusting that you will have another brilliant idea sometime in the near future. You don’t have to get them all down in one go,’ she says. Kill your multiple-birth darlings. Remember also that the presence of a superlative, ‘can be a kind of throat clearing. It’s about getting that first sentence of the paragraph started,’ she says. Once that is on its way, piff the superlative.

‘The writing and trust aspects [also] affect the voice and rhythm of your work. Too many adverbs, superlatives or prepositions get in the way of the voice,’ says Bolch. ‘Voices are bound in word choice but it’s also about the rhythm.’ To check the rhythm, read everything aloud. Your unique voice will be in the way you describe what you feel, hear and smell.

Bolch believes that every writer needs to find a loving hard arse, ‘Someone who wants the best for you and your work and isn’t afraid to help you get it.’ A loving hard arse leaves their ego at their own desk, cares for what you’re doing and is both capable and brave enough to help you meet your goals.

‘Just a few pages of your work reviewed by a loving hard arse can improve your writing no end,’ Bolch says. ‘The flaws that you have, or the improvements you need to make in your short writing are going to be very similar [to your long form work]. All you need to do is add structural elements to longer pieces. [You’ll] probably learn 90% of what you need to learn,’ she says.

Rewriting those pages using the feedback will help reveal your voice and rhythm.

Need a loving hard arse? Hiring an editor can be an option. But Bolch warns against choosing an editor based on testimonials. Instead look at the editor’s work. See how they’ve marked up other writers’ manuscripts. Communication is crucial – so make sure an editor’s style is not too assertive or couchy for your needs. ‘If an editor can’t communicate [with you] then so what? Their [other skills] won't amount to anything,’ Bolch says.

‘All writers need a few people to draw on. And that’s what you need to be for yourself as well,’ she says.

At my desk I now have a list of action items: bad habits Bolch squeezed from my essay, which must not appear in the next. Like any weight loss program, slimming will take persistence. Let’s hope I can also develop a hard arse.

See this post with Bolch’s edits marked up.