Trimming the Fat

When I taught for the Princeton Review, one of the methods we employed to teach subject-verb agreement was Trim the Fat (e.g., the group of regionally selective seagulls on vacation to the volcanoes of Mars is)…. Not exactly Strunk and White’s omit needless words directive, but a little more incisive, methinks.

Recently, I was told that my book was overweight. I was in denial at first. After all, I’d revised a gajillion times. I’d eradicated like 15% from the original draft. And, heck, Stephen King, the “Master of Sparseness,” says that 10% is good, so yay me! Anyway, After a first round of revisions, my book it had gained about 16,000 words of weight. I was in denial at first. That was muscle addition, not cellulite. Book was 104k words of pure Magic Mike sizzleization (full disclosure: I have not seen the movie, but my female friends assure me it is sizzling).

Channing Book Tatum

Nope, my book was looking in a clown mirror. I would not have realized this if my wonderful editrix had not asked me to cut 20,000 words (in person; I can only imagine the look on my face at the time).

NoAbs Book Stripper

Stop crying! Time to put on the big boy pants (to cover that gut) and get cracking.

Let’s crack easy first. Unfortunately, there were only so many adverbs and ‘that’s’ I could eliminate, only so many conjunctions that could be replaced with commas, only so many contractions to form. Reduce adverbs and conjunctions, increase contractions. Shush, you naysayers. Sure, it is it’s like walking to the mailbox and calling it exercise, but I needed to burn all the calories I could. This was the warmup. Okay, so it wasn’t many calories. (Maybe 500 total,  but take what you can get).

Hmmm, what next? There’s that chapter I don’t like. It kind of gives a good sense of big picture shenanigans, but it’s all politics and strategy, plus it introduces a ton of  inconsequential characters. I really like knowing big picture shenanigans though; I also really like jelly doughnuts.

Yay, sacrifice! Yay, progress! *Checks the scale* 17,000 words to go. Seriously, I thought that chapter was heavier. Felt heavy. Shizer.

Undeterred, I went through with crossfit relentlessness, axing introspection, back story, description etc.. Not that I had much of it to begin with (okay, well, maybe I was sneaking a few introspection cookies when nobody was looking). A sentence here, a paragraph there, always asking myself “does this drive the story or build a character?” I expanded this mentality to scenes and eliminated several segues in favor of story breaks; difficult for me, but I eventually realized that I wasn’t losing anything.

Starting to notice results. This is fun. Okay, not really, but at least it wasn’t painful anymore. I had a goal. Prove to my editor I was elite. She’d set 20k, knowing that it was ambitious. She’d even told me 10 would do, but I was gonna show her that my little engine could get up her Everest.

About halfway up, I reached the final obstacle in my slim quest. Dialogue. Editrix had mentioned this to me as a point of pacing offness. Disconcerting. After all, my dialogue is quick and snappy.

Yeah, eat something quick and snappy, then move on, you’ll be fine. Stay at the table with quick and snappy, and you become bloated. Not all at once, but over time. Small portions, baby!

Think I can, think I can, know I can, know I can…

Ultimately, I didn’t make it to 20 k. I read through and read through and just couldn’t cut anymore. Got to that point where I was changing words just to change words, where all the gibbets left to me were too intertwined.

A part of me is disappointed I didn’t reach my Everest (honestly, I was shooting for 21k), but the other part of me is spending time admiring my new abs.



Filed under Editing and Revising

9 responses to “Trimming the Fat

  1. Laurie Thompson

    Great post, Josh, and great job! 20,000 words is Everest indeed.


  2. Josh, I love how well this post not only illustrates “Trim the Fat,” but also “Show, Don’t Tell.” Very meta. 🙂

    Anyway, congratulations on your epic edit! My last revision added over 10,000 new words to my book, so I bet I have some cutting on the horizon.


    • Joshua McCune

      Tara, mine already had a lot of unrecognized swell to it before my first revision, but, man, once I got to cutting it became quasi-addictive (and I have that fear I may have sliced off a finger or two along the way :))


  3. I always find myself needing to add 1000s of words so I’m a little bemused by all these posts about cutting and trimming, but any editing is an assault on Everest. Great way to share your story, Josh.


    • Joshua McCune

      Maryanne, I know many writers for whom this is the case. I always optimistically considered myself one of them 🙂 And, for my first revision, I did have to add words (to flesh out confusion and romantic aspects), Overall, I ended up cutting more words than I’d added. The cutting was easier, though I learned a great deal from both.


  4. Those new abs feel great, don’t they? I am working on a revision of a manuscript that has been on the back burner for over a year. I just took it from 84,000 words to 53,700. I wish manuscripts wore jeans, so I could take those before and after pictures of slim, gorgeous ms. in the oversized fat pants.

    Now if only the fat would come off my butt as easily….


  5. Joshua McCune

    Wow, Jeannie. You cut like 35%…. That is beyond impressive. I once cut 45,000 words, but that was from my epic 400k super-fantasy 🙂

    And, yeah, if only we could put the backspace button on cellulite (he says, then reaches for another holiday cookie)


  6. Great post! I’m struggling with my own wordfat right now, and this was very inspiring. Congrats on the new, svelte ms!


  7. Pingback: The Cookie Monster Puts on Makeup | EMU's Debuts

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