Category: Writing Tips

Writing Tips: Strengthen your prose by removing ‘very’

“Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”
From Mark Twain’s Top Ten Writing Tips

I realised the significance of this advice while in the midst of one of the many revisions of The Author and The Hero. As I removed the word ‘very’ from a few paragraphs, I found that the resulting prose read much better – the words were crisper and flowed smoother than before. It was almost like an epiphany. I went through the entire manuscript, finding each ‘very’ and replacing it wherever it was superfluous, which it was except in a few cases.

Many of us tend to write as we speak and unconsciously use ‘very’ to stress the quality of whatever is being described – very beautiful, very calm, very tall. Remember that removing the qualifier ‘very’ can make your prose sound stronger, most of the time.

An example from The Author and The Hero,

1) I had picked up the term ‘bigster’ from Kailash, who used it very frequently.
2) I had picked up the term ‘bigster’ from Kailash, who used it frequently.

The second sentence conveys the same meaning as the first, but sounds more crisp and confident.

I now have this on my editing checklist – To use ‘very’ (very) judiciously.

The importance of shitty first drafts

In her wonderful book ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’, Anne Lamott wrote about ‘shitty first drafts’ of books which then become more and more and refined with each revision. As I wrote The Reengineers, I discovered that not only manuscripts but ideas too can go through shitty first, second, third and perhaps several draft versions before they take on a solid shape.

The Reengineers grew from a set of disjoint ideas and a few pages of early stories. A few years ago I wrote a few short stories about a young man called Siddharth who lived with his sister in the remote town of Conchpore. I thought about developing this into a full length book with a collection of related stories and called it the chronicles of Siddharth. But I found that hardly knew Siddharth, except that he was very unhappy and wanted nothing more than to get away from Conchpore and his dysfunctional family.

Sometime later, I was writing random paragraphs about three teenagers from Madras in the early nineties who had been displaced into another time and space in a fictional world. I wrote many drafts of the story of these three kids. Somewhere on the way they met Siddharth and that was the catalyst for the story which turned into this book. I completed the first draft of this novel in December 2007, finishing it hastily for submission to The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, in which it was a semi-finalist. My biggest takeaways from the contest were the unbiased reviews from Publishers Weekly, authors and readers which helped me to refine and rewrite it several times. My real breakthrough came in 2012 when I signed a contract with HarperCollins to publish the book.

This book has now gone through more than twenty drafts. The first few versions are almost unrecognisable from the book as it is today. But the book would not have come into being if not for those raw, early versions. This is something that I keep in mind as I work on my new novel, when I tend to spend too much time revising a chapter. There would be revisions and rewrites, a great deal of it, but the first, most important step is to produce the first baseline of the book, or as Lamott calls it, the shitty first draft.