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