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Author Topic: Cut out the flab  (Read 1919 times)
Planetary Overlord

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Peter "Pace" Craddock

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« on: January 18, 2007, 02:38:29 PM »
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Cut Out the Flab

Editors of fiction are paid to find gold and polish it. They receive thousands of manuscripts every day?why should they choose one that requires extensive editing? So if they do get one, they'll send it back fast. Here's how to produce gold that only needs polishing with a toothbrush, not an industrial sander.

One hint to help you stay sane throughout the process of editing yourself: we all have two sides to our brains, and no, I don?t mean the left and the right. I mean the editing and the creative sides. These two have nothing to do with each other. Keep them in their rightful places. Don?t let your editing side take over while you?re creating and vice-versa. The editing side will cramp your style while you're creating; the creative side will try to convince you that your bad grammar is really just creative. Getting these two to work together is a major feat, but until you convince them to help each other, you won't get any work done.

Here's some ways to cut to the chase and cut out the flab in your writing.

Cut To The Chase

Dialogue: Dialogue allows the reader to participate in the action. Use it to give a sense of immediacy to an event. Avoid it when you simply want to describe the mechanics of getting around or going somewhere. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, novels are real life with the boring parts cut out. Cut out the boring parts by summarizing them in narrative.

Make sure you've used dialogue to its fullest advantage to accomplish one of the following:

Move plot along.
Portray character.
Create or resolve the conflict
Tell the reader something they don't know.
Here's an example of dialogue with too much boring, real-life stuff:

John didn't expect to run into his old friend Martha when he was out with Sally, but he felt obligated to introduce them to each other.

"Sally, meet Martha, my old friend from school," John told Sally. "Martha, this is Sally, my girlfriend."

"Hello, Martha," Sally responded. "I've always wanted to meet you."

Martha regarded Sally with apparent distaste. "How very nice to meet you. I see John's tastes haven't changed these days."

Here's what it's like with the inconsequential stuff cut out:

John didn't expect to run into his old friend Martha when he was out with Sally, but he introduced them anyway.

Martha regarded Sally with apparent distaste. "I see John's tastes haven't changed these days."

Incidentally, introductions are the worst?it?s difficult to make an introduction interesting.

Word Choice:

Make every word count:

Use specific nouns: The maple-lined drive rather than the tree-lined drive; the ball gown rather than the dress.
Use strong nouns rather than adjectives. Which is more evocative?slick, shiny cloth or satin?
Use strong, active verbs, like strolled instead of went.
Remember the gender of the person who?s speaking.

Pay attention to the connotation of words as well as the denotation. Denotation is the literal meaning of a word; connotation is the suggestion of meaning, the impression one receives. The words, "lady of the evening," "whore," "prostitute," and "soiled dove" all denote a woman who sells her body, but each has a very different connotation. The more you can load the connotation in your favor, the better your writing will be.

For example, consider the word cloth in the sentence, David grabbed a cloth and used it to wipe away the blood. It has no connotation. It's perfectly bland.

If instead of cloth you use rag, you may be describing someone who's not very concerned with hygiene or who has no access to clean cloth. Or if you use dish towel, you may be implying that the accident occurred in the kitchen, perhaps in the course of his preparing a meal.

Here's another example. The bland version is: Joan went past the gaming table. It's better to say, Joan sauntered past the gaming table, which would imply that she's interested in participating. Or Joan rushed past the gaming table, to show she's too busy to gamble. Or Joan scooted past the gaming table, to show that the room is crowded, making it difficult for her to get around the table.


1. Avoid dropping big chunks of description into your work. Integrate your description into dialogue and narrative.

Here's an example of integrated description:

"She opened the door and a powerful odor of blackened chilis hit her. Oh, dear, she thought as she coughed her way through the dining room. Pasha must be cooking dinner again."

2. Show, rather than tell us. Don?t say, "It was hot in the auditorium" when you can say, "She fanned herself with the program."

3. Remember that although you want to firmly set us in the place and give us good descriptions, you don't want to overdo it. We don't need to hear "his blue eyes" every time his eyes are mentioned.

Here's an example of good description:

"Marlee dug her toes into the sand and looked out at the ocean. The wind whipped her rain-soaked skirts, twisting them about her legs so she could hardly move. She looked through her binoculars, hunting for any sign of a white sail on the angry sea. All she could see, however, was a vast expanse of turbulent blue water."

Here's an example of overdone description:

"Marlee dug her toes into the grainy, itchy sand and looked out at the ocean. The violent wind whipped her thick, damp, paisley-patterned broadcloth skirts around and between her slim white legs so she could hardly move. She lifted the black Kodak binoculars and looked through the tinted lenses, hunting for any sign of a white canvas sail on the angry sea. All she could see through the cheap binoculars, however, was a vast expanse of blue water."

The second paragraph contains so much description for insignificant items like the skirts and the binoculars that you're distracted from the thrust of the story which is that Marlee is waiting for someone who's caught out in a turbulent sea.

Cut Out the Flab

If you follow the rules above and choose words carefully, your writing will automatically be punchier. And if you cut out the superfluous words, you'll gain even more power.

Modifiers: Don't overuse modifiers, mostly adverbs, that aren't as necessary as you think:

really: She really ought to smile more; She ought to smile more.

just: He just couldn't believe it; He couldn't believe it.

almost: She was so beautiful it was almost frightening; She was so beautiful, it was frightening.

quite: He wasn't quite ready to face her; He wasn't ready to face her.

rather: "I'm rather tired."; "I'm tired."

The occasional adverb used to demonstrate a particular character's speech is fine, but adverbs water down your prose.

Strong Verbs: Avoid phrases where the power of the verb resides in the noun or preposition, etc. Use the verb form instead:

make a decision instead of decide
gave him a smile instead of smiled at him
went across the room instead of crossed the room
"Little Words": Don't use several words when a few will suffice. Look for phrases where lots of "little words" dilute the meaning:

Replace I'm going to go there tomorrow.
with I'm going there tomorrow.

Replace After all was said and done, they decided to stay.
with They finally decided to stay.

Replace If it hadn't been for the fact that Tom was holding me up, I'd have fallen down.
with If Tom hadn't held me up, I'd have fallen.

Replace He began to wash the car.
with He washed the car.

Replace As he was reading the paper, he drummed his fingers on the tabletop.
with As he read the paper, he drummed his fingers on the tabletop.

Redundancies: Avoid them.

Serious danger (what other kind of danger is there?)

Exact replica (a replica is exact)

Free gift

Fall down (as opposed to fall up?)

Also avoid repeating the same phrases throughout the book. Notice if you always refer to "his mouth slanting over hers" when they kiss or repeatedly have their gazes "lock."

Active Voice: Use active voice when possible to strengthen your writing. Marlee was bitten by the snake is passive voice. The snake bit Marlee is active voice. Whenever you see a form of the verb "to be," check to see if you're falling into passive voice where the object of the verb comes first in the sentence and the subject comes last.

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~ Peter "Pace" Craddock ~

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