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Writer’s Workshop: Trimming the Fat

Do you want lean, well-muscled prose? Do you want your words to pack a punch? Well, I’ve got the magic formula that will give you the body of work you’ve always dreamed of.

Writer’s Workshop: Trimming the Fat

Mar 16, 2015

Dawn Wade

Editor

Do you want lean, well-muscled prose? Do you want your words to pack a punch? Well, I’ve got the magic formula that will give you the body of work you’ve always dreamed of. Yes, this is a pitch about the value of editing, or more specifically, the value of trimming the fat that weighs down your prose. Like any lifestyle change, it will feel foreign at first, and you will question why it needs to happen. But at the end, you will wonder why it took you so long to do what is good for you.

Regardless of genre, most writers have their verbal tics, the literary equivalent of ums, uhs, and likes, that undercut the effectiveness of their prose. Just and then are two of those words. Their use is hardly ever necessary, especially considering the frequency with which they appear in unedited manuscripts. Consider the following passage:

It started out as a mild squabble, then it escalated quickly.

“Can you please just put things back where they belong?” Rebecca said.

Drew replied, “Sometimes I forget, babe.”

Then Rebecca said angrily, “You forget all the time, and then you act like I’m overreacting.”

He just couldn’t believe that she was making this into a big deal. She had been so irritable lately. He would just have to find a way to placate her, as hard as that might be.

Drew reached out and put his arms around her, murmuring an apology into her hair. Then he pulled back slightly and kissed her on the forehead.

I think we can all agree that in a passage this short, there are too many justs and thens in the vicinity. I suggest playing around with the passage to see which ones you can stand to lose. The first step would be to simply cut out any usage that doesn’t seem to contribute anything special to the narrative. Consider this version:

It started out as a mild squabble, then it escalated quickly.

“Can you please just put things back where they belong?” Rebecca said.

Drew replied, “Sometimes I forget, babe.”

Then Rebecca said angrily, “You forget all the time, and then you act like I’m overreacting.”

He just couldn’t believe that she was making this into a big deal. She had been so irritable lately. He would just have to find a way to placate her, as hard as that might be.

Drew reached out and put his arms around her, murmuring an apology into her hair. Then he pulled back slightly and kissed her on the forehead.

I left the first then because it gives a necessary sense of progression. The just in Rebecca’s dialogue remains because it sounds like real speech; people use just this way all the time, especially when they are angry or frustrated. I removed the second then because readers will understand this progression in dialogue between Drew and Rebecca without it. Readers don’t need to be told explicitly that x happens after y. While the second and third justs are being used in the same manner as the first, I removed them because the passage loses nothing without them, and (as you’ll see below) there are more descriptive ways to convey his frustration.

Now that you have slightly reduced your just/then count, you can go back in and fine-tune your approach. The second step to this process requires that you examine the intent behind the remaining instances of just and then,and find a more creative way to express that intent. Consider this revision:

It had started out as a mild squabble but had escalated quickly into a full-blown argument.

“Can you please just put things back where they belong?” Rebecca said.

Drew replied, “Sometimes I forget, babe.”

Rebecca said angrily, “You forget all the time, and then you act like I’m overreacting.”

Drew made a show of carefully folding the towel and placing it back on the shelf. He couldn’t believe that she was making this into a big deal. She had been so irritable lately. He took a deep breath to calm himself. He would have to find a way to placate her, as hard as that might be.

Drew reached out and put his arms around her, murmuring an apology into her hair. As she slowly relaxed into his embrace, he pulled back slightly and kissed her on the forehead.

By substituting more descriptive phrasing for just and then when possible, you enliven your prose and give the reader more information about your scene.

That was relatively painless, right? 



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