Friday, 10 October 2014

Trimming the Flab by Judy Croome

‘Another diet article?’ you groan.  ‘What good will that do?’

I guarantee you this one is worth it: it’ll turn you into a lean, mean writing machine!

Why is lean and mean better than flabby writing? Because the more words your reader has to wade through to get to the point, the greater the chance she’ll put the book down. And that’s not a good thing!

Is there a painless way to trim the flab? The bad news is: no, there isn’t. The good news is: once you’ve learnt how to identify overinflated writing, you’ll find that your future writing is automatically leaner. You’ll still have to check and double-check for those pesky crutch words and clichéd phrases that sneak in and pad the pages but, on the whole, you’ll find the more you trim them, the less you’ll find them.

Let’s re-read that last sentence, because one of my favourite crutch words, a cliché, an unnecessary word and a poor word choice have crept in.

You’ll still have to check and double-check for those pesky crutch words and clichéd phrases that sneak in and pad the pages but, on the whole, you’ll find the more you trim them, the less you’ll find them.

There! I trimmed nine words without losing the effect of the sentence.  See how slim and trim the sentence is now and with no loss of meaning:

You’ll have to check and double-check for those pesky crutch words and clichéd phrases that pad the pages, but you’ll find the more you trim, the less you’ll find.

When writing your first draft,  forget about trimming.  Let the words flow freely, otherwise you’ll be so busy watching for overwriting, you’ll paralyse your muse. The time to ruthlessly trim excess words is during the revision stages of your novel.

Here are some pointers to help you identify what to trim:

·        Redundant words and phrases:  This is when you say the same thing twice and repeat yourself.  Uh. Let’s try that again. That should be This is when you say the same thing twice OR This is when you repeat yourself.  Not both, because both phrases mean exactly the same. Oops! There I go again! I should have said: Not both, because both the phrases mean exactly the same.

 Note: Unlike redundancy, repetition is an important writing technique. If you repeat yourself, make it a conscious writing strategy and understand why you have done so.

·        Overusing intensifiers:  I find this really very difficult. Do the words “really” and “very” add anything meaningful? Saying I find this difficult expresses the sentiment in a less hysterical, but no less effective, way. Don’t ban the use of common intensifiers such as really, very, severely, extremely; just use them sparingly. That way their effect will be intensified rather than overused.

·        Crutch words: When we speak, we often say ‘um’ as a way to let our thought processes catch up with our mouths. In writing, the same thing happens. We fill the spaces with crutch words that add to the weight, but not the meaning, of our text.  I have three crutch words I liberally sprinkle into my writing: now, still and only.  What favourite crutch words do you use? Identify them, trim them and make sure you don’t replace them with another crutch word.

·        Filler phrases: Also known as expletive constructions, a filler phrase is similar to a crutch word. These are phrases we don’t notice because they silently fill the gaps in our thoughts as we write. Common examples are it is, it was, there are, there is, there were and it seems, often found at the beginning of sentences. Eliminate these and jump straight into the action of the sentence.  It is expensive to paint the house becomes Painting the house is expensive.

·        Non-essential information: Make every word count. Why waste your reader’s time with information that’s irrelevant, implied or obvious? He rode a bicycle that was blue in colour  is not as trim as He rode a blue bicycle. We all know that blue is a colour, so why tell us something so obvious?

·        Clichés and Euphemisms:  This is a sign of both flabby and lazy writing. A cliché may once have been the cat’s meow, but a reader gets as sick as a dog when she reads these tried and true phrases time after time. And, last but not least, be as smart as a whip, take the bull by the horns and respect your reader by keeping your work as fresh as a daisy.  Avoid euphemisms: good writing tells the truth and tells it honestly. Not surgical air strikes, but bombing raids. Not she went to sleep, but she died

·        Use Action Verbs:  Replace any form of the passive verb to be (is, are, were, was, have been, will be) with strong, active verbs. The reason that England went to war with Germany was because Hitler invaded Poland becomes Hitler invaded Poland, and England declared war against Germany.    

As Strunk and White tell us in the classic Elements of Style:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences....this requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (23)

Flabby writing obscures your meaning and frustrates your reader.  Comb your manuscript for unnecessary words. Trim the flab without loss of meaning. Let your writing be lean, crisp and attractive. And keep your readers reading.


(This article was first published in October 2010 as a guest post on the now defunct ROWSA website)