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Writers are often told to ‘write tight’ without being given an explanation of what this means. In general terms, your thoughts will be expressed more clearly and effectively if you use fewer words, and if those words are precisely the right ones.

In this fortnight you will discover the ways you can tighten and polish your writing so it shines. Through a series of audios, lessons and exercises you will discover common words that slow pace, obscure meaning and blow out the word count of your manuscript.


TOPIC ONE: Write Tighter – An Audio From Kim

Listen or download the audio for this section here!

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TOPIC TWO: Words To Search & Destroy

Tightening prose and replacing weak verbs with strong ones will normally happen in the same editing pass. For the purpose of this fortnight’s lesson pick a scene that feels a bit fuzzy and undefined to apply the below searches to. Most of the common writing mistakes we will talk about today are present in the below sentence:

A few problems exist that seem to be quite common in unpublished writing, and you will hear that most of them are just in this one sentence!

We’ll revisit this sentence again at the end. But first, let’s dive into the most common words that are worthy of a search and destroy in a first draft.


‘Feel’ & ‘Seem’

These words and their various permutations like ‘felt’ and ‘seemed’ are often used to prop up other verbs and ideas:

  • “She felt her cheeks flush” would be better as “Her cheeks flushed.”
  • “It seemed as though the mist had settled in for the night” would be better as “The mist had settled in for the night.”

Too many ‘feels’ and ‘seems’ can make your sentences read tentatively, as though you weren’t sure what you wanted to write or were too afraid to write it. Writers often use ‘feel’ and ‘seemed’ as short-cuts in the first draft. Do a global search at the completion of your first draft and consider the weight of these words. If you find them unnecessary, replace them with more active words.


Meaningless Qualifiers & Intensifiers

The worst offending qualifiers are: ‘rather’, ‘quite’, ‘a little’, ‘a bit’, and ‘somewhat’. If you find one of these words in your writing, think about whether your sentence might work better with a more specific qualifier. For example, instead of “He was rather tall” write “He was a full head taller than me.”

Or you can do away with the qualifier entirely. For example, instead of, “She was quite pale,” write, “She was pale.”

Also look out for intensifiers such as, ‘very’ and ‘really’. For example, “It was very dark,” or “Really old.” Often they can be removed all together. Besides, they’re colloquial, the kind of thing you’d say rather than write. Mark Twain said that if you substitute the word ‘very’ with the word ‘damn’, you’ll quickly see how redundant it is.

“It was damn dark when I returned to my house,” or, “My car was damn warm.” This is all about being more specific in our writing.



What’s ‘that’? It’s an overused word, of course! ‘That’ can function as a tripping stone in a sentence by upsetting the rhythm, and can make an ordinary statement, “He was immoral,” sound like a debating proposition, “…that he was immoral…”

“She said that he was immoral” is much cleaner with it removed: “She said he was immoral.”



This is another overused word. Do a global search on your manuscript and track how often it appears; it’s unbelievable how often it creeps in.  Most of the time, it’s not needed. For example, why would you need a ‘just’ in the below sentences:

“Eliza’s birthday was just two days before Christmas.”

“Just give me one more chance.”

“Gerald just wanted to be home.”

“They arrived just before sunset.”

In all of these sentences, ‘just’ adds nothing to the meaning. Either cut it, or say something specific.


TOPIC THREE: Be Specific

Related to ‘show, don’t tell’, specificity is the enemy of vagueness, limpness, and dullness. It is the champion of tightness, it creates engagement, and it is the single most important difference between good writing and mediocre writing.

It’s not just about adding detail; it’s about choosing the right detail to concentrate on in the right place. So instead of saying, “It was very big,” make it specific. How big? As big as what exactly? What do you really mean?

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Consider the sentence provided at the start of the lesson:

A few problems exist that seem to be quite common in unpublished writing, and you will hear that most of them are just in this one sentence!

Using the above rules, and focussing on tightening and strong verb use, it can be as smooth as:

Five problems are common in unpublished writing, but none of them are in this sentence!


teal avatar 5ACTIVITY: Tighten Sentences

Writers are often told to, ‘write tight.’ Your thoughts will be expressed more clearly and effectively if you use fewer words, and if those words are precisely the right ones.

This exercise will:

  • Allow you to practise tightening your sentences,
  • Teach you how to identify and polish convoluted and unclear writing and,
  • Hone your ability to choose the exact word needed.



Tighten these sentences and post your new versions in the Tighten Sentences Forum. Is a consensus reached or do your sentences differ from your peers?

  1. He laughed at her and it seemed she could feel a hot flush rising up her cheeks.
  2. They left just as the last bell tolled.
  3. A bunch of guys stood at the bar. A really good-looking one smiled at me. Jane said that I was welcome to him, because he looked just like her ex.
  4. She considered his book collection, growing worried. He had copies of really smart books, and her idea of entertainment was watching bad TV. Would they even have anything to talk about?
  5. When they fought she found that she hated him. He looked just like some kind of animal when he was angry.

Find three unclear sentences in your manuscript. Can you make them crystal clear? Does this make your paragraph as a whole read more smoothly and clearly?


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