Cutting the Fat Out of Your Writing

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
— Stephen King

Editing is without a doubt the most critical process of writing. It’s what turns a pile of incoherent scribbles into something uniform and fluid. This is something that I (and surely many others) struggled with early in my career and even to this day I have difficulty cutting parts of my story.

This particularly becomes more of a battle the closer I get to a final draft because each moment seems even more precious than it would’ve been on a first or second draft. Allow me to be dramatic, it’s like all these moments are the bruised and bloodied survivors after an epic siege on enemy territory. Only the lucky and the strong are left and to kill anymore off would seem tragic.

Over the last few years, I’ve been able to develop a simple criterion that helps me decide where to cut off some of that sweet, juicy fat. What has also been helpful is working with other writers and being able to look at their work with brutal objectivity. I become more ruthless with cutting out parts of a story that isn’t mine and it has highlighted my own hypocrisy with being over-protective of my own work. So I took the time to come up with a checklist to keep my ass in check — and I hope it can be helpful to some of you.

NOTE: This can be applied to all forms of writing, whether it be non-fiction, web content, screenplays, et cetera. (Eric S Burdon)

Without further ado, here are a few (er, I should say six) things to consider when cutting fat from your story.

Explain Why

Pretty straightforward. If I can’t explain or give a reason as to why something is in my story, then I should probably take it out. Especially when I get “in the mode” and crank out a couple thousand words or more in a single sitting. In the moment, when I’m on that writer’s high, I can feel like everything I’m putting on the page is essential. It’s not until I take a moment to ask myself, “Why did I write this?” do I start to realize bits and pieces have no purpose. The best advice I’ve gotten in relation to this was: Don’t set a plate of food for someone that ain’t showin’ up for dinner.

I do my best to apply this to all aspects of my writing — character, themes, blocks of prose et cetera. Now, if you really feel there is a purpose to be made of whatever is on the chopping block, there’s no harm in putting it off to the side and see if it finds a soul in subsequent drafts. I’ll elaborate on that later.

Halfsies

If you can say the same thing in half the space or less — do it.

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” — Dr. Seuss

Members Only

One thing I’m constantly guilty of is writing things that are uber-niche. These are things that only a small minority of readers will catch or understand (Members Only…get it?). There are exceptions but a lot of times I have to come to terms with the fact that they don’t add anything to the piece or they become a major distraction.

The times that it does work is when it happens organically and that’s the rule of thumb I try to follow with these kinds of elements. This goes back to the first point about putting things off to the side if you don’t want to eradicate them right away. A lot of changes happen in rewrites (duh) so there is an opportunity for certain things you may initially cut to find a home in the story.

Ripple Effects

This approach has helped me the most with making a decision on more difficult cuts. It’s called Ripple Effects for a reason — if something doesn’t have some sort of ripple effect on the story, a character, or the reader, consider taking it out.

If Character A sleeps with a prostitute, the interaction should either directly affect Character A, be a factor in the unraveling plot/story, or provides your reader with something relevant (such as add insight to Character A’s behavior). Again, I can’t emphasize enough that not everything needs to have some grandiose meaning behind it either.

Intent

Here’s where things get a little tricky but this also kind of lines up with the first point. I try to make sure everything I put in a story has some sort of intent behind it. Even it’s just as simple as trying to get a reaction out of my audience. I can get carried away with it, easily, but at least if there’s intent or motive behind it, it’s not wasted space on the page.

The other crucial side of this is that your intent and motives need to be pure and honest. The best way to explain it is to think in terms of saying “I love you”. If you say “I love you” to someone with purity and honesty, the results will be powerful. If it’s corrupt and dishonest, things will go bad (to say the least).

Outsider’s Opinion

As I become more confident and appropriately self-critical of my work, this bit is more like the cherry on top. When all else fails, when I’m really in a struggle to figure out what I need to cut out, I seek outside help.

In a previous article, I mentioned that it’s important I never have too many cooks in the kitchen. Over-saturation of opinions can do more harm than good and I keep the same logic with this. I seek help but I keep it minimal and precise. Even just one extra pair of eyes can be more than enough to figure out how to slim down.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.“— Colette