Grammar Gremlins: Pacing Weasels

Have you ever been told that your pacing is too slow, by an agent or an editor or a critique partner? Or maybe by your own internal editor? “What does that chapter do?” your critique partner might ask. Or “that scene doesn’t contribute much,” or “the sagging middle really sags.”


Well, those aren’t Grammar Gremlin problems, and Ken Rand’s The 10% Solution doesn’t address them either. Where Rand’s ideas help is in speeding up the prose itself, regardless of the larger story.


Here’s a quick example from Rand’s book, part of his original query on The 10% Solution:

I’ve developed a technique I now use regularly that’s earned me occasional praise for “crisp” writing. After completion of anything I write—fiction, nonfiction, humor, whatever—I go back and cut out ten percent of what I’ve written.


Nothing terribly wrong with that, but here’s Rand’s revised version:

A technique I use has earned some praise for “crisp” writing. After I finish writing—fiction, nonfiction, whatever—I go back and cut ten-percent.


From 38 words to 25, with no loss of content. Yes, it’s nonfiction, and most of us are more concerned with fiction, but the techniques are the same.


Rand was not a grammarian. He didn’t understand the difference between active and passive voice (no, my children, the verb to be is an essential part of the English language, and it is not inherently passive), and he counseled against the use of “past tense” (she ran) when he really meant past progressive (she was running). But even if his grammatical knowledge was shaky, his ideas were good.


Accuracy, clarity, and brevity were Rand’s watchwords. “She ran from the room” beats “she was running from the room” (unless, of course, continuing action is important: “she was running from the room when she tripped over the dog”).


Word choice can speed things up as well. Dump those nearly meaningless words that we use all the time and rarely need: very, even, much, rather, just, like, really, and so on. Replacing adverbs with stronger verbs not only cuts a word but makes the sentence stronger. “She raced” beats “she ran quickly” (indeed, how else would she run?). “He strolled” rather than “he walked slowly.”


Replacing five-dollar words with their fifty-cent equivalents speeds things up, too. Is your character intoxicated, or just drunk? Can you replace conflagration with fire, rationalization with excuse? On the other end of the word-length scale, watch out for short words like “of,” “that,” and “by,” frequently unnecessary.


Why do all this paring and tightening? To quote Rand again, “Because it reads faster so readers have less time for their minds to lollygag and drift.” Hold your reader’s interest, and she’ll read another chapter.


Coming attractions: next month, Point of View Weasels

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