Write Tight – From Flabby to Trim

Last week I promised to share some of the material I covered at the Writers’ Institute. “Tight writing” was one of the subjects I addressed when Christine DeSmet and I presented “Why Critiquing is Necessary.”

Before critiquing my manuscript was 110,000 words
After critiquing my manuscript was 73,000 words

Trim the Fat
If it can be said with fewer words, eliminate the unnecessary and make every word count.

“That,” “just,” and “very” can almost always be cut from your work eliminated.

Flabby: She smiled slightly at the photographer.
Trim: She grinned at the photographer.

Flabby: With a pagoda-style roof, it had a distinctly asian look to it.
Trim: With a pagoda-style roof, it had a distinctly asian appearance.

Flabby: She was a very pretty woman.
Trim: She was beautiful.

Show, Don’t Tell
In the previous example, I broke the first rule of writing—show don’t tell. “She was beautiful” is classic telling. Here’s how to show she was beautiful:

“Framed with a mass of auburn curls, her oval face was complimented by mesmerizing bottle-green eyes and red lips that curved into a captivating smile.”

And while this sentence is longer than “She was beautiful,” clarity trumps brevity every time.

Eliminate Redundancy
Eliminate words that aren’t needed unnecessary words:

Her doctor asked her the question again, “Where does it hurt?”

The words “ask” and “question” are redundant. Can you ask anything other than a question? Here’s how it looks when redundancy is removed:

Her doctor repeated the question, “Where does it hurt?”

Huge skyscraper”—it has to be pretty darn big to scrape the sky.

Advance planning”—all planning is done in advance.

Avoid Repetition
Avoid using the same words repeatedly. Substitute another word with the same meaning:

In the white winters you can sled or cross-country ski to Lake Tahoe’s many resorts. In the hot, bright summers there’s hiking through giant forests and climbing the Sierra Buttes. In the autumn the deciduous trees glow with vivid fall color, and in the spring, masses of wildflowers create a psychedelic dreamscape.”

Here’s the same paragraph, replacing the last three instances of “in the.”

“In the white winters you can sled or cross-country ski to Lake Tahoe’s many resorts. During the hot, bright summers there’s hiking through giant forests and climbing the Sierra Buttes. Come autumn the deciduous trees glow with vivid fall color, and when spring arrives, masses of wildflowers create a psychedelic dreamscape.”

Do you write tight from the get-go, or do you have to go back and trim the fat?

Listen with your heart,

Laurie Buchanan

Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.”
— Laurie Buchanan

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© 2012 Laurie Buchanan– All Rights Reserved

67 thoughts on “Write Tight – From Flabby to Trim

  1. Sounds like a helpful session. I have taught these principles countless times, but I love the visual you use at the beginning. Also, the concison of this post itself–not to mention the title. Great post, Laurie!

  2. I agree, writing is an art and it has to adhere to the rules of art, “keep it interesting.” What’s never ceases to amaze me is that even when I feel I have done the best job, someone always finds something I missed. The power of a writing group cannot be understated.

    • Reflectozone – You’re absolutely right about the power of a writing group. It’s great to have additional pairs of eyes and ears when it comes to our manuscripts. Thank you for stopping by Speaking from the Heart and leaving a comment.

  3. I loved writing tight when I used to send 160 Character text messages. These days, the rhymes, the rhythm, the emotions and a whole lot of other things influence whether or not I keep the fat.
    Very enlightening piece, thanks for the share!

  4. Years ago I read a biography of Charlotte Brontë. When she was in her late 20s she went away to school in Brussels where she learned she needed to learn to “write tight.” I love your tips here, Laurie, especially the example of the paragraph which avoids repetition. Many thanks!

  5. Great tips! When I was trying to reduce my novel for publication (it was way too long for a YA novel from an unknown author) I did manage to shave off about 30-40,000 words, mostly unnecessary scenes. I tried to make sure things were tighter than when I started. It still wasn’t enough to satisfy the publishers and kept being rejected. Maybe if I followed some of these tips more closely, it would have made more of a difference. 🙂

    • Mywithershins – Once we get past the dread and into the actual cutting, it’s pretty amazing how brutal we can get, “That can go!” “That’s not absolutely necessary!” And whittle it right down to a nice size 🙂

  6. Laurie, I was eager to read about your writing and speaking experience in Madison. I enjoyed the show don’t tell refresher course. My writing technique begins with a “Creative Blue Brain Dump”. Then adapt a “Yellow Brain Organization” mode for my ideas. Next, I print out my sh*ty first draft, cut up the paragraphs and use a “Green Brain System” to put my ideas in a logical order on my Storyboards. I love revisions and have “Orange Brain Fun” merging and purging my ideas in to a manageable few that tell the story succinctly. The “economy of words” it my revision mantra. Looking forward to more exciting and informative writing news from Madison.

  7. Hi Laurie,
    Oh my this brought back memories! I wrote for a newspaper for years – talk about word count and making EACH word count! Today I try to write tighter when it’s a free-lance assignment or if I’m working on my book – but my blogs I don’t fuss as much over. Now you have me thinking I should!

  8. This reminds me that de-cluttering can feel really really good! (ooops, probably one too many reallys in this comment, she sighed regretfully.) Your writing often reminds me of Zen. Clean, pertinent, simply relevant, Present.

  9. I had a publisher once who requested all incoming articles be no more then 500 words. As editor I fussed and fumed as I chopped and slashed. It wasn’t until years later that I understood the gift I’d received by being “forced” to write tight. I still lean toward the flabby when I write, which makes knowing how to trim quickly and correctly an invaluable asset.

    Good, tight, informative post Laurie, thank you.

  10. Thanks Laurie
    Sage advice.
    I am working at developing the habit of writing tight, and I still find it useful to simply let the creative ideas flow, then go back and edit later.
    If I get too much into editing early, it seems to stop the flow of ideas.

    • Ted – “Go back and edit later” is what I do too. If I try to edit-as-I-go, I’d never make any progress. I blather on (and on!) to keep the flow going, and then come back and edit later.

  11. Hmm… if I can play Devil’s Advocate here Laurie, I think it depends on what you are trying to achieve. Sometimes as a story teller I need a bit of padding to drag out the suspense, I can’t just say “the butler did it” on page 2. Also before we had word processors none of us had a clue what the word count was!
    But I agree sometimes sentences are just too long, and full of guff.. My rule of thumb is… (take a deep breath) If a sentence is too long to be spoken in a single breath then it’s too long (you can breathe in now)
    very best wishes

  12. My next book review is challenging to write about because the author is so redundant, which is why he can not seem to heal from his traumas – I was bored with reading the 300 pages, and yet it is an important story to share. Your post makes me want to limit myself to about 300 words for the review – the challenge is to still excite the readers to read this book.
    Thank you for sharing your wealth of information.

  13. The most valuable assignment I completed in university started with a 10-page paper. We were asked to trim that initial paper to 5 pages, then to 2 pages, then to 1 page, and finally to a single paragraph. Talk about being concise! (Clearly, since I graduated, I have roamed back into the lazy fields of run-on sentences, redundant words, repetition, and telling more often than showing. Yes, I can tighten up my writing if a certain audience/format requires it, but I choose to keep the flab in my blog posts. Big is beautiful, right?) 😉

    • Dana – The university assignment you described sounds like it would be hard, but fun! I think that process must be similar to what people who write the “blurbs” for book jackets go through 🙂

  14. Ha, funny that I come upon this post during my prep period here on Wednesday morning between two creative writing sessions with fifth graders. All these smart rules and corrections certainly apply and are a constant challenge when addressing the writing of elementary schoolers who are continuously reminded to emply word economy. Today’s lesson is one on persuasive writing, one where students will be addressing the cafeteria’s food menu and how they feel it can be improved in a letter to the principal.

    Love that slim fast on the paper pile Laurie!

    • Sam – My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Kline, was one of the most positive influences in my life. As a result, this one thing I know for certain: never underestimate the influence you have on others. My hat is off to teachers for they hold our future in their hands.

  15. What a wonderful lesson, Laurie. I have to ask, though, since all planning is done in advance, is there anything that humans (or other living things) do that is NOT planned? It seems to me that even our instantaneous reactions have been programmed into us simply by virtue of being alive. Okay, I digress . . . probably should write my own blog about this topic!

  16. Laurie, I’ve always greatly appreciated your writing style! There is never any doubt about what you mean and what you share is long remembered, thanks to the crystal clear pictures your paint with your words.

  17. I’ve heard wonderful things about you, Laurie, thanks to the introduction by Terrill Welch!!! I look forward to reading more of, and learning from, your words of wisdom. Can’t wait to hear about your SPECIAL lunch today!!! Many smiles your way! 😀 CARPÉ DIEM!!! 😀

  18. Your first picture so perfectly captures the gist of this great post, Laurie. Thank you for the information and the inspiration, too.

  19. Oops think I accidentally hit return there.
    Anyway – Chandler or Hemingway – it he said, she said – nothing more fancy. Effective.

  20. Ah – it turns out I hit delete, not return.
    You got the second half of my warning against over elaborate description there.

    I also find repetition effective sometimes. Hammers a point home.

    But the rest of the time my head is in lyrical clouds.

    So – good and useful post. Apologies for the fractured response.

  21. Great tips! I always welcome ways to write “tighter” and typically need to go back and “trim” as you say! Great blog!

  22. Pingback: Self Editing: Put Your Book on a Diet | change it up editing

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