Ways to Trim the Fat

I wish I could trim body fat as effortlessly as I can the fat in manuscripts. But it’s much easier to cut back on words than it is calories. At least, it is for me. So, I will attempt to show you how to make your books into lean, mean fighting machines. For the physical fat, I’m afraid you’re on your own.

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One way to trim manuscript fat is to cut unnecessary prepositional phrases.

Example:

John moved toward her, his face red with fury. “How could you possibly think I wouldn’t find out?”

Mary cringed at his tone. (‘At his tone’ is not needed. We assume she is cringing because of his tone)

“Please don’t be angry.” Mary pleaded with him. (We know she’s pleading ‘with him’)

Another way authors often leave in unneeded words is to repeat something we know or to state the obvious.

Example:

John lunged, reaching for Mary. But he was too late. Bill grabbed her and pressed a knife to her neck. (Obviously he was too late if Bill has her. You are giving readers a head’s up and telling, and stating something they are getting ready to learn in a more ‘showing’ way)

A particular word that is used too often in manuscripts I receive is ‘very.’ The following quote sums it up pretty well (other than the fact that it was written years ago and these days, your editor will not likely remove ‘damn.’) I believe the source is newspaper columnist William Allen White, although the quote is often attributed to Mark Twain:

Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”

I agree with Mr. White (or whoever actually said it). The word ‘very’ is very seldom needed. (See, I could have just said ‘seldom’ needed, and it would have meant the same and been more tightly written)

Examples:

The vase was very ugly. Could become: The vase was hideous.

She walked very fast. Could become:  She hurried, or sprinted, or rushed or…

He was very angry. Could become:  He was furious.

The meal was very good. Could become: The meal was delicious.

She wasn’t very excited to go. Could become: She wasn’t excited to go. Or even better: She dreaded going.

Remember, extra words make your writing clunky and slow your pacing. Your intent might be to get word count up (although my belief is that word count should always be however many words it takes to tell that particular story). But a better way to increase word count is to add conflict and plot twists, and/or make exciting things happen to your characters. Don’t just pad your manuscript with unneeded words.

What are some examples of extra words/phrases you’ve noticed in books you’re read? Or maybe you have now found some in your current WIP?

16 thoughts on “Ways to Trim the Fat

  • Great examples as always, Alicia. I remember when I was editing court transcripts — which (of course) are verbatim. (I edited for spelling and to make sure the correct”to/too/two” was being used, for example.) One of the biggest lessons I learned is that people talk “messy”! We tend to think the way we talk, and write the way we think. Sometimes that can be good (for dialogue, maybe?), but for the rest…. I think I need to print this post out and hang it above my desk!

    • Thanks, Leah. Yes, so true. We want dialogue to be natural but not with those ‘natural’ excessive words people use such as, “so, uhm, anyway…” 🙂 As good as your writing is, I doubt you have many unneeded words. 🙂

  • Excellent advice got me thinking, too. Thank you. My excess word would be ‘that’. Such as, ‘You didn’t tell me that you were going.’ becomes, ‘You didn’t tell me you were going.’

    • YES, good point. I can’t believe I left off ‘that.’ It is definitely an overrused, unneeded word. Thanks so much for stopping by. Glad I could help.

  • Your timing with this article was spectacular. I’m rounding the 80 thousand word count on my sci-fi/rom WIP and
    I’m starting to go back over it with a weed whacker to remove the things that choke the life out of a reader’s interest level. Thank you for sharing this! I’m using your suggestions!

    • You are most welcome! I’m glad the timing worked out for you. Best of luck with your manuscript.

  • My wonderful editor, Ally Robertson, does a tremendous job of helping me trim the ‘blabber-blubber’ from my manuscripts 😉 Overuse of words ending in ‘ly’ and ‘ing’ clutter sentences. Redundant phrases and the word ‘that’ are also hunted down and slaughtered with a vengeance.

  • LOL, Anna. Thank you, but I don’t have to exactly massacre your work. It’s already in darn good shape when I receive it. Thanks for stopping by!

  • You all used my “that,” so I guess I would add people often use the sense words (felt, see, heard) when unnecessary. Instead of “He felt he needed a drink,” for example, the writer could say, “He needed a drink.” Or “He saw the car was in the driveway,” becomes simply, “The car was in the driveway.” We know he sees it. Good post, Alicia!

    • Thanks, MJ. I’m glad you liked the post. Oh my gosh, you hit on one of the things that really jump out at me. My authors can tell you how much I dislike those particular unneeded words. They are filter words that distance the reader from the action, make your writing less active AND they are unnecessary (words like saw, heard, felt, wondered, knew, noticed, etc.) I’ve actually done a workshop on those words. 🙂 Thanks for adding a great tip.

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