Episode 13: Slimming Down


Like a good diet, writing benefits from cutting out the excess. This is true regardless of the type of writing, but I mainly want to focus on a few key areas: description, dialogue, and poetry.

Let’s make a few things clear first, however. Cutting out extraneous material in any of these areas does not mean that the writing has to be short—pithy, yes, but not necessarily short. Second, there are times that the writing does need to be more complex. I am certainly not implying that we should all be Hemingway here, and writers have their own styles. Finally, there are certain characters in a story or screenplay, for example, whose nature requires some superfluity, and that’s okay (but keep it to one such character).

Slimming down the writing is not about making it threadbare. Instead, it’s about making the writing concise and poignant.

Description: In a novel, long description can be flowing and beautiful. But that doesn’t mean it’s all necessary. My rule of thumb is this: if what I’m describing doesn’t either promote the plot, prepare for an event, or define a character, I surgically remove it. This is a judgment call, and there may be disagreement over the function of specific elements. However, beautiful prose does not guarantee utility. This can easily be true of whole scenes. You can wax eloquent about the city, suburb, or country—just make sure that it has purpose.

Dialogue: Now this is a tricky topic, and we’ll talk more about it later. For this episode, let’s just say that dialogue in most forms of writing does not exactly imitate the rhythm and flow of real life. For one, the more “ums” and verbal ticks you include, the more tedious it becomes. Yes, we all use those in our day-to-day conversations, but that does not make for the best writing.

Most writing also dispenses with small talk. The function of human speech (or animal or computer speech for those so inclined) is to further the story. You would not expect a discussion about the day’s weather in a news article (unless it is the weather), and in most cases, small talk is superfluous to fiction. Make sure that every conversation or quote serves a purpose in your writing. Anything that doesn’t should be edited or taken out.

This is the bottom line: dialogue moves the story.

Poetry: While poetry is about words, using more words is not necessarily more poetic. Poetry, in fact, relies the most on careful word choice, and I recommend that all writers—no matter what the genre—take the time to pen a poem or two on occasion. The more careful you are about crafting poetry, the more you’ll see how word choice can make a huge impact on all forms of writing. Your poetry doesn’t have to be good, and you don’t have to share it with anyone. However, notice how one word, one connotation, can transform the entire poem.

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