One of the worst mistakes writers can make is being too possessive of their words. They fight for each adjective, adverb, and conversation tag.
My early writing suffered from too many words. I once wrote that an artist didn’t “really” understand the difficulties of making a living in his profession. The editor kindly cut all instances of “really,” “just,” “so,” “very,” and other weak words experienced editors call “weasel” words.
The cuts hurt, but I exercised restraint in venting only to my mother. I didn’t have a literary agent! She agreed with me. “If you cut out ‘really,’ then you’re saying he had no idea at all!” Sharing offense is the job of mothers.
Weasel words are great in everyday conversation because they soften the impact of strong verbs and can make painful statements gentler to the listener’s ear, but they waste a reader’s time. Embrace the power of a vibrant verb. You want your reader to feel every emotion, whether your goal is to offer a sense of relief and peace through nonfiction or to bristle with anger and fall in love along with fictional characters.
In my role of agent, I sometimes edit manuscripts and point out areas needing improvement. My writers know I am partnering with them to give editors their best work. Sometimes an author puts forth a convincing reason why an element should remain as is. If so, I relent.
But a literary agent is only part of the equation. In the hands of an editor at a publishing house, the stakes increase. The editor represents the publisher, who is paying for your work and will bring the book to paying customers. Expressing outrage is not the order of the day when talking with your editor. Choose your battles wisely, if at all; and be prepared to present airtight reasons for resisting changes. This is especially true for new writers, but even veterans need to be respectful of the publishing professionals the Lord puts in their path.
When you do, you will be happier, your editor will be happier, and you will have a happy agent!
[This post was previously published in June 2011]