Monday, February 7, 2011

MFA Monday: Cutting the Fat

"Is your book 100 page book, or is it a 50 page book wearing a fat suit?"

This is the way one of the faculty opened his lecture on editing, one that continues to ring in my ears each time I open my project. I love that statement. As someone who thought I always wrote pretty skinny first drafts, I realized my drafts were thin because I was leaving out the meaningful details, but I still had much to cut.

Here are a few easy and simple ways he suggested "cutting the fat" from your writing:

  • Qualifiers can almost always be cut (very, almost, kind of, rather, a little, a bit, maybe). Trust the meaning of your main words; qualify only if the distinction is necessary
  •  Simplify Verb Forms Have, had, or had can usually be eliminated from the verb without changing the meaning. Keep only if necessary to qualify the time something happened. Watch out for the word "can" as well. Only use it when it's important to show the ability to do something.
  • Don't state the obvious. Shrugging (her shoulders). Blinked (her eyes). Yawned (sleepily). Look of surprise (on her face). We don't need the words in parenthesis; those are understood.
  • Cut the words "that" or "which" if the sentence makes sense without it. 
  • Eliminate things a reader would already know. Not all details are equal. Writers have a tendency to move a character through every action; don't. For instance, we know when a person wakes up, they turn off the alarm, get out of bed, go to the bathroom, brush their teeth, get dressed. Unless this information is in some way critical, leave such detail out.
  • Control the pacing of the scene by what you leave in and what you take out. Less details lead to a faster pace. Adding them slows it down.
It's amazing to me how innate these mistakes are. Even when I go through my work in an effort to cut, unless I'm specifically looking for one of these, I tend to miss them. But when I find and revise, it's also amazing how much tighter and leaner the writing is, more focused. It forces you as a writer to find the better words, to come back to the nouns and verbs that make writing focused and deliberate. A reader may not be able to put their finger on why a novel feels fluffy or deliberate, but they'll notice it nonetheless. Make each word count.


  1. What a great post and one I needed today as I start another round of edits to cut some word count. I'm printing this off and leaving it by my computer.

  2. I'm an underwriter but it still means I need to cut, cut, cut. I need to add more, replace the details that aren't needed and delete the internal thoughts that tell too much. Much to do in revision!

  3. I tend to write lean, but there's always something I can take out or tighten up when revising.

  4. Great post! You have listed areas I've been focusing on for a while.


  5. Laura - So much to do in revisions! I imagine that would go for every kind of writer. Even in the MFA program, the poets and non-fiction writers took this same class. I would think it would apply to underwriters, lawyers, CEO's... all of us. :)

    Thanks for stopping by the blog.

  6. This is a GREAT post. I have almost all of these on my list that I set next to my computer when I edit. But I think I'll print this out instead.
    Well said.
    Thanks Heidi!

  7. That was one of my favorite lines from residency. I tend to write puffy fat suits, although I'm finding this semester that I'm changing into leaner drafts that still sometimes have the extra details in the wrong places. Thanks for the reminder on this great talk. I need to read it at least once a week!

  8. Tabitha - it was one of my favorite too. It says so much in so few words! :)

    I'm finding it necessary to look at whole paragraphs and decide if they are on track, and then go back and look at the individual sentences. It's tedious work!

  9. I love it. I am going to put my manuscript on a diet. We're going lean.

  10. These are such great tips, Heidi. I'm totally a "that" over-user. I've finally found the time to begin revising my WIP again and I'm printing off these suggestions. Great stuff!

    Do you use a checklist when you edit your work?