Believe me, it was painful to cut those words. It was like making the choice between cutting off my baby’s right arm or her left one. Seriously! Those words were my creations; they came from my gut. To cut them threatened to ruin the very soul of the piece. Once I got through the drama and grief of having to edit the piece, I commenced to cutting the fat; first 400 words, then another 300, and finally I ended up with exactly the number of words required for the submission. In the end, the piece turned out to be much more exact, and it moved the story along just fine without those other 700 words. Imagine that!
The lesson I learned from that exercise was to write lean. Writers, particularly novelists, tend to rely heavily on adjectives, extra scenes, and dialogue to give readers more insight into charaters and the drama of the story. Non-fiction writers sometimes over explain concepts or rely on industry-speak to fill the pages of their book. Memoirists and autobiographers tend to add more detail to the events of their lives than is necessary for the reader to grasp the general lesson or emotion of the scene. So for each of these (and other) genres there is a need to learn the fine art of writing lean.
This isn’t something I instruct clients to do in the beginning of the writing process. In fact, I often tell clients to write with wreckless abandon in the beginning. Get the story out, then pull out your butcher’s blade and go back for the cut. What do you cut? Here are some things to consider during the self-editing process:
What is the main theme of your book? Keep that in mind as you read through the content. If you come across a sentence, scene, concept, or conversation that doesn’t support that theme, consider cutting it.
What is the main lesson or moral of your book? When you find sentences or paragraphs that don’t tie in with the ultimate lesson or moral of the book, scap them.
Why use two words when one will do? Look for uses of the verb “to be” and the accompanying verb (usually an “ing” word) in your writing. Decide if you can make the statement with fewer words, yet keep the meaning. For example: She was beginning to feel that she would never get the answer she had been hoping for. Instead, try: She doubted that she would get the result she wanted. Sometimes it works; sometimes not. But give it a try.
Why repeat the same idea? Often you will be tempted to write a thought, and then reinforce it in different words. It isn't necessary to include both sentences - even if they are both brilliant sentences! Time to make a choice to use the words that clearly convey the message.
In journalism school, I was taught to “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” (KISS). But that doesn’t always work in authoring. However, when you separate your need to be wordy from your readers’ need to get to the meat of your book, you will inevitably find ways to cut the fat. Take it from me, you’ll be a happier, leaner author and you'll find that simple and to the point is much better than the alternative.