Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Trimming the Fat

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart. – Mark Twain

For the record, I do not subscribe to that school of writing, inspired by contemporary journalism, that insists on everything being pared down to the bare minimum. I enjoy a well-used, well-placed adjective or adverb. I like to wax lyrical on occasion. As with everything in the art of writing, however, the secret is in choosing the time and place. Very often, less will be more.

Many writers (myself very much included) simply use too many words. Consider the following passage from a one-time NYT best seller:

Somehow, Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct now overruling his sedatives. As he clambered awkwardly out of bed, a searing hot pain tore into his right forearm. For an instant, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him, but when he looked down, he realized his IV had snapped off in his arm. The plastic catheter poked out of a jagged hole in his forearm, and warm blood was already flowing backward out of the tube.

Opinion will vary about this, but let’s see if I can eliminate a few unnecessary words here:

Langdon’s body was in motion, panic and instinct overruling his sedatives. As he clambered out of bed, a searing pain tore into his forearm. Briefly, he thought a bullet had passed through the door and hit him; then he realized his IV had snapped off. The catheter poked from a jagged hole in his forearm, warm blood flowing from the tube.

Eighty-two words have become sixty-one words. In this short passage I achieved a 25% reduction in word count without, I would suggest, any loss of information or impact. I might even argue that the impact is greater in the second version. If only this practice had been applied to the entire book!

As an editor, I will always strive to make the writing tighter and more concise, without any loss of essential information, and without affecting the impact of the writing. We tend to use auxiliary words when they are not really necessary. Why write, for example, ‘he began to stand up’, when all we really mean is ‘he stood’? By all means use ‘he began...’ if the action is interrupted, and this is important to the story. So: ‘He began to stand, but a firm hand kept him in place.’ Even here ‘up’ is redundant. Avoid phrases such as: ‘he tried to go as far as he could.’ Presumably he actually went as far as he could: the trying is redundant. Unless you have a specific reason for using the imperfect tense, use the perfect tense: ‘He watched television’ rather than ‘He was watching television’. Is it really necessary to write: ‘He opened the box and a smile rapidly grew across his face’, when ‘He opened the box and smiled’ will do the job? Yes, sometimes you will want to wax lyrical; but choose the moment carefully. Don’t squander this creativity on less important passages.

Having written for scientific journals, in which every unnecessary punctuation mark is ruthlessly excised, I have become very efficient at trimming the fat. Even so, it often takes others to point out the fat I have overlooked in my own work. Sometimes ‘the fat’ may be a precious aspect of our creativity; most often it isn’t.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go through this blog and trim it of its unnecessary fat of which, no doubt, there is an abundance.

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