While my critique from the judges focused on a couple of minor plot hiccups, many of the other competitors received this comment:
“The best advice I can give you is to always strive to keep your writing as tight as you can get it. Cut out as many unnecessary words as you can and when you think you can’t cut any more, start over. Always try to paint a picture with your words.”
This comment spurred a conversation on the competition’s forum. Many writers, including myself, discussed strategies for eliminating the fluff from our work to make it as tight and vivid as possible.
Today, I’d like to share some of those strategies with you. It’s important to know how to cut the s–hit the delete button and remove unnecessary words from your work. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing flash fiction or a novel. Tight, concise sentences will make your story stronger.
So, here we go! Here are my top five tips for cutting the fat from your work!
1. Stop Telling, Start Showing
Was. Should. Could. Felt. Heard. Saw. Thought. Noticed…
Cut, cut, cut!
Not only do these telling words eat up space, but they keep your audience at arm’s length. Instead of inviting readers into your story and experiencing it firsthand, you make them stand back and observe it from afar.
Let’s take a look at an example from “La Jolla,” my first round entry in this year’s NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge.
The rumbling was growing louder, and the vibrations became harder. Cole heard a chilling screech tear through the train. It was followed by a metallic groan and cracking glass. The train was speeding over a bridge when it lurched sideways. Cole went staggering into an old man. He felt him grab his arm in a hand that was trembling and shivering uncontrollably. “We’re gonna die!”
Total words: 65
The rumbling grew louder, the vibrations harder. A chilling screech tore through the train, followed by a metallic groan and cracking glass. The train sped over a bridge and lurched sideways. Cole staggered into an old man. He grabbed Cole’s arm. “We’re gonna die!”
Total Words: 44
By removing the telling language, I chopped over 20 words and I thrust my readers into the story. They went from being an observer to a participant.
2. Go on a Which Hunt (“Which” and “That”)
My business communications professor at CSU loved to mark my papers in red pen. She crossed out half of my words, circled the other half, and alway–always–scrawled this note at the bottom: “Go on a which hunt, Jenna!”
At the time, I despised my professor’s red pen and “which hunt” comment. Now, I’m thankful for it. To this day, I can’t use “which” or “that” without asking myself, “Is this absolutely necessary?” Most of the time, it’s not. “Which” and “that” tend to be empty, fluff words. Worse, they often lead us to over-explain things.
Let me show you what I mean with another example from “La Jolla”:
With “Which” and “That”:
Finn strained to reach Cole, which was near impossible. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist, which was trembling from fear and panic. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into water that was the color of steel. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s grip, which was so tight, his knuckles were white, and catapulted him into the rear window face first. Cole stared through spider-webbed cracks that spread across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm that never seemed to end.
Total Words: 89
Finn strained to reach Cole. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. Cole stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm
Total Words: 61
See the difference? By cutting out “which” and “that”, I eliminated almost 30 words. Plus, I removed extra details the reader didn’t need to know. They could imagine the scene without them.
3. Skip Dialogue Tags
This is my policy about dialogue tags: If you don’t need it, don’t use it.
Nothing against tags, but they’re often unnecessary. If a reader knows who’s speaking, then why clarify it? And if you can insert an action (smile, glare, hair flip, run, jump, etc.) instead of a “said” or “asked,” then why don’t you? It’ll paint your scene brighter and bring your characters to life better.
Let’s use an example from my short story, “The Ark,” to illustrate what I mean.
Her mom squeezed a dollop of sanitizer onto her palm and asked, “How’s Cal? You two still dating?”
“Don’t,” Becca snapped.
“What?” her mom asked.
Becca glowered at her and said, “Don’t act like everything’s fine.”
“I’m not,” her mom exclaimed.
“Because things will never be fine again,” she hissed.
“I know. But, please, honey,” her mom said, raising imploring hands, “let’s move on…”
Total Words: 64
Her mom squeezed a dollop of sanitizer onto her palm. “How’s Cal? You two still dating?”
Becca glowered at her. “Don’t act like everything’s fine.”
“Because things will never be fine again.”
“I know. But, please, honey. Let’s move on…”
Total Words: 44
Of course it’s okay to use dialogue tags. But, before you do, ask yourself if you really need them. Or, better yet, see if you can replace them with an action. You’ll save yourself words and make your story more evocative.
4. Beta Readers
Two weeks ago, I wrote my second round story for the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge. Besides being a total emotional drain, “Kleine Mäuse” was a mental drain too. I had to chop over 700 words from my first draft to meet the competition’s strict 1K limit. For hours, I narrowed the plot, condensed my sentences, and deleted any and all fluff.
I succeeded in eliminating 500 words…But I had 200 more to go, and I didn’t know where to cut.
So, blurry eyed and mentally zapped, I turned to my beta readers. I emailed them my story and begged them to help me find those final 200 words without hurting the plot or characters. Gradually, their suggestions trickled in: “Delete this.” “Reword this.” “Do you need this?”
My story drained from 1,200 words to 1,160… 1,120… 1,070… 1,035… 1,012…994. Victory! With the help of my betas, I got my story under the 1K requirement. I also made it stronger by removing redundancies, weak sentences, and other things that dulled my story’s edge.
So, even if you’re not in a contest with a strict word count limit, I strongly suggest you rely on beta readers to help you chop unnecessary words. I assure you, you might think your work is as tight as it can get, but it’s not. Let someone with a fresh pair of eyes and a clear head help you see what you cannot.
5. Read Out Loud
Personally, my favorite editing trick is to read my work out loud. Not just once, but multiple times. And not just to myself, but to someone else. Or, better yet, to have someone else read it to me.
It’s amazing how many flaws you catch when you hear your work read out loud. Repetitive words, clunky sentences, stilted transitions, useless dialogue tags…The list goes on and on. So, if none of my other tips have helped you, then heed this one. It will do wonders for your stories!
Hopefully you’ll be able to use one or all of these strategies to cut the you-know-what from your work and take it to the next level.
Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running. If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.