"Required reading" for today's smart writer.

"Required reading" for today's smart writer.
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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Here's the "Skinny" on How to Trim the Fat From Your Writing...Post by Nick Thacker

Nick Thacker
There are a lot of great posts and articles out there on editing and reworking parts of your writing to make it better.
But one of the things that was pointed out to me recently about my writing was that it seemed “fat”—mainly that it was bulky, heavy, or just seemed too “full of words.”

Most of us have heard that we need to "trim the fat" from our writing, especially in fiction. To do this, the recommendation is to remove as many adverbs from our writing--or at least try not to use them when possible--and watch our use of dialogue tags other than "said."

But what exactly does it all mean? Sure, it's easy enough to not say, "the boy ran timidly, yet excitedly, toward the goal," and substitute in something that sounds less seventh-grade. We know that dialogue flows easier through our readers' minds when it's short and to the point, but how exactly do we use that advice?

I'm no expert (my background is actually in marketing and promotions), 
but I have done some writing. More importantly, I've done some serious editing on my own work, and I've seen the marked difference I've been able to attain with just some simple cutting and chopping here and there. Here is a list of the best things I've ever done to spruce up my writing:

Get rid of adverbs.

Not all of them, but some. See for yourself:

"John sat awkwardly in the chair, swiveling around strangely as he took in his surroundings. Who were these people? he thought, as the cosmetologist gently nipped and chopped at his hair. He began to stare intently at the man that was sitting nearest to him in the waiting area, trying to figure out where he'd seen him before."

See how strange it sounds? Admittedly (sorry to use another adverb...), the actual writing needs work too, but I can improve the paragraph quite a bit just by chopping out most of the adverbs and replacing them (if needed) with simple descriptions of the action:

"John swiveled in the chair, taking in his surroundings. Who were these people? he thought, as the cosmetologist nipped and chopped at his hair. He began to stare at the man that was sitting nearest to him in the waiting area, trying to figure out where he'd seen him before."

Already, it's looking better. It's more to-the-point, and it doesn't fall off the tongue (or our mind's tongue!) in chunks as we try to read it. But there's more: it's still lacking the bluntness of a well-written passage.

Get rid of gerunds and infinitives.

This one is a little trickier, and really depends on your own experience and preference. For me, running a search through my current novel manuscript finds no less than 453 instances of the word "began." That's insane. I write things like, "he began to walk away," and "she began to stand up." Why?

There's no reason for those "began + infinitive" expressions, especially when you can replace the expression with something as simple as the past participle (walked, stood). The above sentences in my manuscript become, "he walked away," and "she stood up." Already I'm making significant progress cutting the fat (and my word count).

"John swiveled in the chair and took in his surroundings. Who were these people? he thought, as the cosmetologist nipped and chopped at his hair. He stared at the man that was sitting nearest to him in the waiting area and tried to figure out where he'd seen him before."

Sound better? It is (at least in my opinion).

Run searches on words like "began," "that," (quite often, you don't even need it!) and adverbs like "really" and "very" and work out a way to exclude them from your writing. If you can't delete them completely, you can usually rework the sentence slightly and come out with a much crisper result.

Watch your pronouns!

I can sometimes get carried away with my pronouns ("he said, she said" stuff) and realize that my writing is hard to understand. If I can't understand it as the writer, there's no way my readers can probably understand it. Try reworking the subjects and objects of the sentences so you're not only using the active voice ("he told him") instead of the passive voice ("he was told by him"), but also try to replace unclear pronouns ("he told him") with more specific ones ("he told the man"):

"John swiveled in the chair and took in his surroundings. Who were these people? he thought, as the cosmetologist nipped and chopped at John's hair. He stared at the man seated nearest to him in the waiting area. Where have I seen him before?"

By reworking some of the instances of "him" to say "John," we can clear up who's performing the action and who it's being performed upon. By scrapping the last half of the last sentence and replacing it with a more direct action (internal dialogue), we get to "see" John figure out his surroundings, instead of being "told" how he's figuring it out.

Make sense?

I understand this isn't the perfect example, and it's still subject to opinion--some writers don't like the Hemingway-esque short, choppy sentence structure, but I'm a thriller writer. I want action, and I want it fast! Scenes like John's aren't as "action-packed," yet still need to flow with the speed and clarity of the a-bullet-pierced-his-skull!-type scenes.

If you can't figure out how to make a paragraph concise and clear enough to be understood, it's probably not necessary to your plot!

What do you think?

Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are on this.
Specifically, what “rules” do you set for yourself so your writing remains lean and straight-to-the-point? Are there certain words or phrases you commonly find in your work that we should watch out for?

Leave a comment and let’s discuss!

Nick Thacker is a writer who runs the self-publishing blog 
www.LiveHacked.com. He has recently started offering a free, 20-week course helping people write their novels. 


  1. Jennifer Brown BanksApril 2, 2013 at 5:54 AM

    A special thanks to Nick for his time, and for sharing this very enlightening post with Pen & Prosper readers.

  2. Thanks Jennifer! Glad to be here -- thanks for having me!

  3. Reply to your Kelley Highway comment (because I don't have an e-addy for you :-):

    C'mon, girl! Trash to treasure is so inspiring! In fact, I'll soon share a great lesson I gleaned from a clock whose flawed design was "helped" in order for it to function properly. We writers have a way of looking at one teensy dude from a bazillion different angles, don't we?!

    Happy week!

    P.S. I trimmed some fat from my comment before pushing SEND. *wink* {Thanks, Strunk and Nick!}

    ~ Kelley

  4. In this age of 'lean and skinny' these are great suggestions to implement. Another trim-the-fat suggestion is to take a second look at the adjectives employed.

    1. How true! Thanks, Anjali, good feedback. Nice to hear from you today.

  5. It's so easy to say to myself, "Psh, I don't make common mistakes like that." But I've already been called out for "thats" in my manuscript. It's subtle and easy to miss, you need to develop a really sharp eye to catch these blunders!

    1. Emma,

      No matter what our level, we all make a blunder or two every now and then. :-) A watchful eye is indeed required. Thanks for "weighing in" here.

    2. I hear you, Emma! No joke: I had about 300 instances of "[began to]" in my first novel... "they began to run away..." "they began to die..." etc.

      Haha, I remember thinking "I'm so good at this; I don't NEED an editor!"


  6. This is excellent advice! I am a fan of clean writing - not too sparse, but sharp with a good dose of personality. That said, I still find myself tripping over these things sometimes. Thanks for the tips and insight, Nick. It's great to meet you!

    Jen, thanks, as always, for being a wonderful host! :)

  7. Hi Karen,

    A good dose of personality is often "what the doctor ordered". :-)
    Appreciate your feedback.

  8. Nick,

    Thanks for these great tips to make our writing better. I am guilty of a few of these, especially too many "began"; I have to find a way to unfriend it :)

    Jennifer, thanks for sharing Nick's excellent post with us.

    1. Yasmin,

      It was my pleasure. Glad to have you back with us. :-)