Monday, November 29, 2010

Mentor Monday: The Power of a Single Word

When I was about to have my first novel published, the editor asked me to cut 30 pages from the manuscript. The book was about 220 pages long, and it would be included in a series of historical novels. Each book in the series would be about 180 pages.

When I tell school children that story, they gasp. For most of them, putting words on paper is difficult enough. They can’t imagine having to remove the words after such a struggle. But, I explain, cutting words can be fun. It’s like a puzzle. How can I say the same thing using fewer words? I like the challenge.

As professional writers, we deal with this dilemma all the time. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you notice that publishers are looking for shorter and shorter stories. Magazines that wanted 1,000 word pieces now request 900 words or 500 words. They pay by the word, quite often, so it’s a cost cutting thing. The attention span of today’s reader isn’t what it used to be either. Basically readers want us to say what we have to say and move on.

While cutting words is an important skill for a writer, I was thinking the other day about how careful we have to be to keep in just the right word(s). I’ve had personal experience with how important one word can be.

Some years ago, I served on a jury that heard the case of a man and woman accused of plotting the murder of the man’s wife. I’m a true-crime junky and the trial was better than anything I’d seen on TV. The accused man was a former parole officer who had fallen in love with his parolee—the female defendant.

We heard all the sordid details of their affair. (The phrase “stranger than fiction” was invented for these two). We heard testimony about the murder plot. The female defendant had been jailed. The police wired a fellow inmate and told her to get the defendant to talk about the death threat on the man’s wife. The prosecutor entered the taped conversation into evidence and we listened to the tape during the trial.

After closing arguments, we, the jury, reviewed the testimony and evidence. We listened again to the conversation taped by the wired inmate. Here, in the jury room, we had time to listen more carefully and pick out each word. The two women discussed the defendant’s case and the defendant demanded a favor from the wired inmate. Suddenly in the middle of the conversation, I heard the defendant say:

“Do I have to try to kill you, too?”

I asked to have that portion re-played. I HAD heard it: a three-letter word that sealed the defendant’s fate.

As well.

Meaning, the defendant had tried this before. She’d just admitted it.

I couldn’t have written it better if I’d have made up this story.

Can one word make a difference? Sometimes one word can turn a story’s trajectory. It can provide the clue that helps the protagonist find true love or solve a mystery.

It can turn a hero into a villain. It can be the difference between guilt and innocence.

For this defendant, three letters, one word, became the difference between freedom and 10 to 20 years of incarceration.


Barbara said...

Great advice. I've found I can usually cut at least a third of my first drafts, and most of it will be unnecessary words.

As for your anecdote, what a great catch! I'll bet it made making a decision so much easier.

I'm Jet . . . said...

A very fine post, Muriel.

I also love to cut words, and find it one of my most favorite things about writing.

Great anecdote, too!


Melissa Donovan said...


I would have sent you an email but I cannot find your email contact information on your website. I am writing to let you know that the red pencil image on this post is copyrighted. I licensed it from a stock photo company. Also, you are using my bandwidth by coding your site to use mine as the image source. I would greatly appreciate it if you would change your image source, and you should also use legally obtained images on your website.

Thank You,
Melissa Donovan
"Writing Forward"