Three simple ways to improve your economy of language

Economy of language is something I’ve been wanting to share with you all for a while. I thought it would be better to build up to it, though, because it can be complicated if you haven’t spent a lot of time studying the mechanics of writing. I feel like I’ve finally reached a place where I can explain this concept clearly and provide examples or answer questions if anyone needs help.

A little background

I didn’t take creative writing in college. I was broke and desperate to graduate with as little debt as possible, so my elective courses were few and far between. All of the writing courses I took were journalism or whatever core English or literature my major required.

Somebody out there is thinking that’s not very creative or conducive to writing novels, and they’re right–in a sense. However, journalism teaches economy of language, and that’s a feather every writer needs in their cap. As I mentioned back in my post about writing with style, some readers will never notice how economical or how beautiful your writing is. However, I feel like economy of language is still worth learning even if it may not be something you use very often. It teaches you how to make the most of your words, and how to communicate clearly with your audience.

What is economy of language?

In journalism, (at least back when I was in school, I don’t know if it’s changed) each story is allotted so much space–called column inches–in the newspaper. The more important the story, the more inches it’s allowed. Good journalists learn how to budget their words so they can keep a story as short as possible without losing the most important elements.

Economy of language is that skill. It’s how you retain nuance and emotional impact, and lose dead weight. Fewer words sometimes leads to greater clarity. Reducing empty words in a novel might give you enough room to deepen your characterization or expand your story’s conflicts.

Even though indie writers aren’t bound by a traditional publisher’s word count regulations, they still need to write engaging prose. Eliminating filler words and phrases can help readers stay engaged because there’s less material to read through before they get to the good stuff.

I’m sharing a few simple tools today, and I’ll expand on these–with more examples–soon. This process is part of my editing routine, by the way. I’d never finish a story if I tried keeping all of these details in mind as I write. So don’t stress if you’re not ready to tackle everything yet. Give it time and believe in yourself.

These are a few of my favorite tricks

Lean into active voice

I talked about this last week, so I won’t go into too much detail today. Passive voice is a tool and sometimes it’s the best choice for a sentence. However, novice writers tend to overuse this tool. I’ve done critiques for people who had entire pages of nothing but passive voice, it made their stories drag. Passive sentences and expressions can increase your word count without adding significant depth to your writing. Try this exercise and see how much your story might change with a few small tweaks:

  • Pick a short scene in your story and run a word count.
  • Identify your passive sentences. Highlight them so they stand out. If you need help with this, try pasting the scene into an editing app like Hemingway.
  • Rewrite a few passive sentences and make them active. Use your best judgment to decide which sentences to rewrite and which ones to leave.
  • Next, look for passive expressions. Apps usually won’t catch these. Search your scene for words like is, am, are, was, were, or been. If any of them are attached to a verb ending in -ing, you probably have a passive expression on your hands.
  • Replace verbs like “was walking” with “walked.” You don’t have to replace all of your passive expressions (aka past progressives) with active expressions, but try to do a few.
  • Run another word count. How much did it change?

Small changes add up over the course of a novel. Let’s say you eliminated 100 words from your scene with this exercise, and your novel has 70 scenes. If you’re able to do the same thing in every scene, you might cut as many as 7,000 words! What could you do with that much extra room in your story? Create a new subplot, give a secondary character a little boost, add nuance to your descriptions and worldbuilding? You have a lot of options.

In addition to improving your economy of language, active voice tends to sound stronger to your audience. It sometimes removes filters between your reader and your characters, and brings the reader closer to the story.

Replace weak adverbs with stronger words

Adverbs aren’t evil and I’m not saying you should never use them, but overuse of adverbs can hurt your writing.

Many adverbs are neutral descriptors that don’t add to your story’s atmosphere or tone. Every word counts when you’re building an emotional scene. Here’s another simple exercise for you:

Use the same scene as before. You don’t have to change every adverb, but try to reduce your usage by about half.

  • Search for “very.” You can either delete it or replace it with something more appropriate. Instead of “very tired,” your character might be “exhausted” or “drained.” Instead of “very happy,” your character is “elated” or “overjoyed.
  • Do the same thing for “really,” “only,” and “just.”
  • (optional) Look for other adverbs–words that typically end in -ly–and decide whether they serve a meaningful purpose or if they’re taking up space. Delete or replace as needed.
  • Run another word count. How much did it change? Remember, small changes add up over the length of a novel.

Replacing simple adverbs with more complex adjectives or descriptive phrases like similes and metaphors can help inject depth and meaning into your story. I sometimes use the simple forms as placeholders in early drafts, but I tend to replace most of them later.

Dialogue tags

I’ve talked about dialogue tags before, and a lot of that applies today. If you haven’t read that post, please check it out.

I would delete most adverbs attached to a dialogue tag. There’s almost always a stronger word. “He said softly” could be “he murmured” or “he whispered.” Sometimes adverbs in tags are redundant. “She shouted loudly” is a waste–your readers know shouting is loud, so you don’t need to modify it.

If you have a tag alongside an action beat, try dropping the tag. This might improve your story’s pace, too, because it’s one less piece of information your reader has to absorb before they get to what happens next. Here’s an example:

With tag: “Blah blah blah,” John said as he holstered his gun. “Let’s go.”
Without tag: “Blah blah blah.” John holstered his gun. “Let’s go.”

It’s a small change, but it makes a difference, doesn’t it? Here’s your exercise.

Go through your dialogue tags in the same scene you’ve been working on. Using your best judgment, replace some dialogue tags with action beats and consider replacing adverbs if you have any in your tags. Check your word count again.

How many words did you cut?

There is a time and place for almost everything. Passive voice is a necessary part of the English language. Sometimes adverbs are the perfect words. Dialogue tags help your reader keep up with your characters. Practicing economic writing will help make your writing stronger, but it’s okay to be wordy when the situation calls for it. You’ll figure out what’s best for your story as you go.

I gave you simple examples today, just to help you get a feel for economy of language. There are more advanced techniques, which I’ll talk about in upcoming posts, but I think it’s best to start with an easy introduction and build up to the harder material. Feel free to subscribe to my mailing list if you’d like to know when new posts go live.

Do you keep economy of language in mind as you’re writing or editing? You’re welcome to leave a comment with your thoughts. If you liked this post, please use those social media buttons to share it with your friends. Thanks!

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17 Comments

  1. I know there are certain words or phrases I use unnecessarily. It’s an ongoing process to refine our writing styles and cut out the extraneous, especially if you had teachers back in high school/college for whom length of a paper was weighted as heavily (or nearly so) as comment.

    1. It’s definitely a process. I had to unlearn a lot of things, too, and I’m honestly still learning. That’s part of what makes writing fun for me, though.

  2. This is a skill I desperately need. Because I wasn’t diagnosed dyslexic until my mid 30s I had to find my own ways to deal with my issues, which meant avoiding the words I couldn’t figure out how to spell and instead over described to make up for it. Often a single word can replace a sentence, but if you can’t spell that word, you have to write that sentence instead. The days before predictive text and googling words to figure out how to spell them, sucked

    1. I’m glad we have better resources for dyslexic folks now. There are probably still some improvements that could be made, though. It sounds like you’ve been very resourceful over the years. Honestly, just from reading your blog, I’d never have guessed you were dyslexic. You write beautifully.

    1. Thank you! I think it’s something they cover more in journalism classes than creative writing classes, but I think this technique will help most writers.

  3. These are some amazing tips! As someone who’s come to blogging from a love of photography and not a love of writing, I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing!

    Katie | katieemmabeauty.com

  4. This was really interesting to read. I’d never heard of economy of language before but it completely makes sense. You’ve included some really helpful tips and I can definitely apply this to my writing in the future.

  5. This post was so helpful! I am currently writing my draft and finding whatever advice and books to read on writing and in most of them, they talk about cutting of the non-essential, like adverbs incorrectly used and passive voice. Thanks for sharing x

    1. Thank you! I’m glad I was able to help. It seems like most writers agree on trying to reduce non-essential verbiage as much as possible. I like giving examples, though, so people can get a better idea of what might be essential and what they can do without.

  6. This is such a good writing and editing skill to have – I often find myself cutting excess verbiage from my posts but your tips are really useful, I’m sure I can find more to cut and improve!

  7. I haven’t heard of the term economy of language before, but it does seem useful to know. I rarely use adverbs because so many school papers were like do NOT use any adverbs, but I will have to keep dialogue tags in mind when I’m working on my book!

    1. I feel like economy of language is something that most English or lit teachers rarely cover. I learned it from journalism classes. It’s so useful, though. I’m glad I was able to show you something new. Thank you for your comment!

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