Polishing Your Prose, Part One--The What, Why, Where, and Hows of Removing the Flab


(Note: This is the first installment of the "Polishing Prose" series. I will post one article each month this year, highlighting some of the major issues I see every day as an editor.)

I love being an editor. I love reading books and giving aspiring authors suggestions to improve their work and make it something they can be proud of. My job is tough, but it's also rewarding; I love seeing a book move through the editing process and (hopefully) come out better in the end. There is a lot of creativity that goes into an editor's job, and there are so many elements that go into creating polished prose. 

One of the most important is what I like to call removing the flab. That means, essentially, cutting the unnecessary words from a first draft that just don't need to be there.

Understanding why these words need to be taken out and how they will help the narrative, and learning to recognize what they are and where they are often found is vitally important for the integrity and readability of a manuscript.

#1: The What 

The first thing to do is identify the flab.

Notable editor and literary professor William Zinsser says this in his book On Writing Well:

“Clutter is the disease of American writing. Our tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important…but the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” (6)

He goes on to say that most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

Fifty percent. That's a lot.
But it's actually easier than you think. (Note: I did not say it's easy, only that it's easier than you might think.)

Some time ago, I happened across this website. It has a lot of great articles on writing--what to do, what not to do, resolutions, tips, etc. Recently, guest blogger James Chartrand wrote a really great post: Three Words You Should Eliminate from Your Writing.

Word #1 was really. I'll use the example of my previous sentence to show you why.

"Recently, guest blogger James Chartrand wrote a really great post."

What exactly is the difference between a really great post and a great post? Nothing, that's what. A great post should be just that: a great post. The really is, therefore, unnecessary and takes away from the meaning of the word great to the extent that it makes you unsure about the overall greatness of the object in question.

I would add that great was not the best word choice on my end anyway. Great could mean a host of different things, and I should have revised the phrase to say something more specific to my feelings: He wrote an insightful post. He wrote a helpful post. He wrote an articulate post.

The options are really endless. (Yes, my use of really was intentional.)

The other two words on the list were very and totally, both of which I agree with for similar reasons as great, the most important being that they don't add anything to the sentence.

Sol Stein is a noted editor and author who wrote another excellent book on writing titled Stein On Writing. (I'm sure you can tell from the title that he's a humble man.) In his chapter "Liposuctioning the Flab," he says,

"Flab, if not removed, can have a deleterious effect on the impatient reader, who will pay less attention to each word and begin to skip." (197)

Unnecessary words, qualifiers--the dreaded flab--will cause readers to miss what you're saying, because the good stuff is surrounded by empty words. Don't let it happen to you!

#2: The Why

Once you know what "the flab" is, it's good to know why you'd want to spend your valuable time trying to find it.

Think of it this way: readers are picky. They have short attention spans, thanks in large part to the internet, and they have only so many hours in a day. They want to read something that is well written, and a huge part of that is your narrative (sometimes it's the only part of the book, depending on the genre/subject matter).

Removing the flab is vital to your success if you want people to take you seriously. Readers aren't stupid (at least, that's what I like to think), and they will notice when you're repeating yourself by repeating the same word repetitively. They will think you didn't spend time writing and revising and rewriting, and the whole thing will appear to be thrown together, and your readers will put your book down.

If that's not a good enough reason to ruthlessly hunt down the flab and destroy it, I don't know what is.

#3: The Where

Knowing what the flab is and why it's bad won't help you one bit if you don't know where to find it. The short answer: everywhere. You will find a word or phrase to cut in almost every single sentence of a rough draft. That's just the truth.
Besides those we've already mentioned--really, very, totally--are others. Many, many others, to be wary of overusing: quite, somewhat, extremely, rather, a bit, slightly... the list goes on. Often, these words find themselves surrounding an adjective, so that's a good place to start.

Take, for example, this sentence: For her, it was effortlessly easy work.
What about the word easy is so hard to understand that you feel you need to add a qualifier? If something is easy, it's assumed to be effortless, so just dump the extra syllables and move on.

Or what about this: His teeth were clenched tightly.
Which word do you think needs to go?

If you said the adverb tightly, you're right! The definition of clenched means it's tight, so there's absolutely no need to write it. (See if you can find the word in my previous sentence that could be taken out.)

I often tell my authors that if you feel you need that extra word, get out the thesaurus and find an adjective, verb, or noun that will clarify your point without a narrative-clogging qualifier.

#4: The How

So you know what flab is and why it's bad and where to find it. Now you just need to know how to take it out. Well, the easiest way is to not be afraid to delete! Authors get so upset when I ask them to cut, but this is one of the most important aspects of writing: learning how to revise. And revising often means cutting.

Here's Zinsser again:

"Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time." (9)

You have to strip it down before you can build it back up. This takes time, and it's hard. But in the end you'll have strong sentences that say something clearly. Or, after revision: You'll have strong, clear sentences. And right there I dropped 3 words! Easy.

So don't get married to your writing. This is not a long-term relationship. Be prepared to say an early good-bye if it's not working out.

Be it fiction or non, increasing the pace of your manuscript and strengthening it can happen at the same time! All you need to do is "remove all adjectives and adverbs and then readmit the necessary few after careful testing" (Stein 197).

Now obviously I understand that sometimes a few well-placed adjectives are necessary. But first, try cutting them all and see how it works out. Then, like Stein suggests, add back a few at a time. 

I'm of the mind-set that if you're going to call yourself a writer, you need to know how to write. That seems fair, I think, and the first step to polished prose is recognizing when you're writing too much. Overuse of "flab" is common, and what I wish was more common was a concentrated urge by writers everywhere to seek out the flab and remove it from their work.

So go be such a writer. It's hard work that can be extremely rewording if you do it right.
I wish you quite a lot of really good magical luck.
LauraKatie said...

This is great Amanda! I think I will share this with my students!

LauraKatie said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

These are helpful and instructive tips. (I wrote "great" and then went back and changed it.) :) I only hope people who actually need them get a chance to see them and then implement!

Way to rock.


Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda said...

Thanks! I hope so too. And thank you for helping me out with some needed clarifications.

Amanda said...

Thanks, Laura! You should share. I really hope someone can learn from them. That's why I wrote this post! :)

Justine said...

This reminds me of COR 101 when Prof Scott told us, "You use too many words when you write." We weren't used to someone actually holding us to our page limit! And in Speech, Prof Ross would take off points if you used "very" in a paper. Lately, I have written several things that had a specific word limit, and it was tough to delete. But, in the end I realized that the edited version really did say everything I was trying to say in the longer version!

Amanda said...

I remember that, and I definitely see what she was talking about. I'd be interested in going back to read through my old papers. I bet I overused a lot of words! Ah, the good college days. COR 101 almost killed me :)