Quick-Tip Tuesday: Cutting Out the Filler

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David B. Coe/D.B. JacksonChildren of Amarid, by David B. CoeWe’ve recently learned that our younger daughter is gluten-intolerant. (Yes, this is relevant. I promise. Bear with me.) And in discovering this, we have learned we can’t always assume we know what’s in the food we’ve been eating. It’s not that apples suddenly have gluten in them, but rather that lots of processed foods have hidden fillers, and these fillers often include gluten-rich ingredients.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m in the process of editing my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle (Children of Amarid, The Outlanders, Eagle-Sage) for reissue later this year. Children of Amarid is already in production and on schedule for a July release, and I’m most of the way through The Outlanders right now.

I’ve noticed an incredible amount of extra verbiage in my early books — filler, if you will: superfluous words that add little to the storytelling, but clutter up my prose. For the wordiness-intolerant, these words are as unwelcome as, well, Wonder Bread at a luncheon for the gluten-adverse. How much is “an incredible amount”? In Children of Amarid, book I, I cut 20,000 words without touching plot, character, or setting. Book II has been better: I’m past the mid-point and so far I’ve cut about 8,000 words. But still, that’s a lot of words.

What am I cutting? What excess verbiage should aspiring writers look for in their own prose? A few examples:

Passive and distancing constructions: This one accounts for a big chunk of what I’ve cut. Passive constructions are phrases that rely on forms of the verb “to be” (“is,” “was,” “are,” “were,” etc.) Put another way: Passive phrases rely on forms of the verb “to be” (“is,” “was,” “are,” “were,” etc.) See what I did there? Passives do more than weaken our verb constructions. They disrupt our writing and cause us to add lots of excess verbiage. To be clear, we can’t eliminate all “to be” phrases from our writing. We wouldn’t want to. Sometimes they are simply the best way to express a thought. (As in that sentence.) I’ve found in book II that I fought so hard to avoid ALL passives that I wound up with some tortured syntax. But overall, I encourage you to get rid of passives whenever possible.

Distancing constructions come in several forms. Any time we use “could” we are possibly adding extra words. And often using “saw” or “felt” or “heard” injects unnecessary words into the perceptions of your point of view character. For example:  “He could hear a horseman approaching” is wordier than “He heard a horseman approaching,” which is wordier than “A horseman approached.” And since we’re in the POV of our narrator, we KNOW that she has heard this.

I’m oversimplifying a bit, of course. Yes, it’s possible that your POV character divined this magically, or saw rising dust — perhaps we need some sensory input. “Hoofbeats shook the ground. A horseman approached.” Now we’re using more words. But we’re saying more as well. We’re showing rather than telling. My larger point stands: eliminate distancing constructions from your writing. Even if this doesn’t save you words in the long run (though trust me, it will) doing so will improve your writing.

Adverbs: I don’t subscribe to the Eliminate All Adverbs school of writing. Sometimes adverbs make our writing more evocative and help clarify matters for our readers. But more often than not, they add little or nothing; often they detract, cluttering our prose. I almost added “unnecessarily” to the end of that last sentence. But I didn’t need to, did I? Case in point.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run across the following phrases in my early books:  “He glanced briefly.” “She tapped lightly.” “He ran quickly.” Note to younger self: A glance is, by definition, brief. A tap is always light. Running implies quickness, or at least relative quickness. Even more subtle adverbs, like the “unnecessarily” I left off above, wind up doing less for our writing than we think. Again, I wouldn’t tell you never to use adverbs, but I would encourage you to minimize your use of them. Ask yourself if they’re necessary (I almost wrote that as “really necessary”) to get your point across. If they’re not, don’t use them.

Weakening words: When I’m less certain of my plotting or my character work, I use waffling words and phases. I insert “a bit” or “somewhat” or “slightly.” I start sentences with “he found that” or “she tended to” or something of the sort. Again, on occasion we WANT to soften a statement or convey indecision or slip in a qualification. More often, though, these phrases and words weaken our prose and our storytelling.

Beginnings and starts: “She started to run” is wordier than “She ran” and weaker than “She sprinted.” Most of the time, we don’t need to be told that a character “started” or “began” to do something. If the character wasn’t doing this thing a line or two before, and is doing it now, chances are, they started somewhere in the interim. It’s implied; move on.

I will close this already long Quick-Tip with a confession: As I’ve written this piece, I’ve caught myself making the exact mistakes I’m suggesting you avoid. It’s not that when I wrote my old books I did these things all the time, and now I never do them. They are habits, crutches, things I do in my writing all the time when searching for the right words. The difference is this: Now I catch myself and find another way to phrase the thought. Earlier in my career, I lacked the awareness, the inner editor, that kept me from relying on wordy constructions. Put another way: Even now, I am constantly struggling with issues of this sort. Or, even better: I struggle with these issues still.

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7 comments to Quick-Tip Tuesday: Cutting Out the Filler

  • Yeah, when I edit for an inexperienced writer, generally I can cut around 20% without changing anything but the level of verbosity. And often a piece that lacked voice magically finds its voice once all the clutter is removed. Kinda like dusting the furniture to reveal the shine.

    My personal fave for redundant description is “a small midget”. There are large midgets??

    And my pet surplus-words peeve is “would be able to” when what’s meant is “could”.

  • Great coaching points! While writing in the moment, I don’t worry about that type of wordiness or sluggishness in my prose. Line editing is a writer’s best friend. A horseman approached, hoofbeats shaking the ground.

  • Razziecat

    David, I think of these things as “extra description” that I don’t need. Actually, it was YOU that pointed this out to me one day, in an exercise on this very site! I had a sentence that ended with “anyway” and you mentioned that you would drop that word. I did so, and saw that you were correct: I didn’t need it. Ever since, I’ve watched for those little “qualifiers” and eliminated them. It’s amazing how concise my writing is without them.

    By the way, here is a favorite quote from Mark Twain that seems relevant: “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
    😉

  • Reziac, I think this is something that all young writers go through and have to learn for themselves. I see it in manuscripts I’m looking at right now for an upcoming teaching event. I like the dusting analogy a lot. Thanks!

    Razz, that’s great. Glad to know I helped a little bit. And I love the Twain quote. Then again, I;m not sure I’ve ever encountered a Twain quote that I DIDN’T love. Thanks for the comment.

  • Alex Pendergrass

    Lots of great, timely advice, David. You might recall asking if I could tell my story with a few less PoVs because of the high word count. Now I’m wondering if I can use this article to cut a chunk of unnecessary words (if yours had 20,000 mine must have 30,000+) and save the PoVs. I might still need to cut some scenes entirely but at least I’d have tighter writing to play with. I’ll be coming back to this as a reference often.

  • Thanks so much, Alex. Hope this helps with the manuscript. Certainly, tightening up prose will help any story. I still think that too many POVs can create issues, but I don’t know your work well enough to say if you have “too many.” Either way, best of luck!

  • I’ve found that the ability to see these redundancies doesn’t usually stick until the young writer has had it applied to their own writing by way of a good teaching edit. Then they can truly hear the difference in a way that just doesn’t penetrate otherwise (probably because no words are so meaningful as those you wrote yourself). After all, if we could learn these things by osmosis, doncha think reading millions of other folks’ words would have got the method across?

    In editing out surplus words, there’s a caveat: often they go to voice, and removing every technically-needless word renders the work bland and colorless. You don’t sand a bas relief flat, either.