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.
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.