Writers in the Storm

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April 25, 2011

Put Your Flabby Writing On A Diet

By Sharla Rae

Too much flab on a person can cause a fatal heart attack. It's fatal to an author’s writing too.

Flabby writing is usually the result of wordiness or over writing. Both are weak and tiresome and make editors go cross-eyed. Worse, at the first sign of it, an editor stamps it as a reject.

Write Tight, an excellent Writers’ Digest bookby William Brohaugh lists 16 types of wordiness. I can’t detail all those types in this blog, but pointing out a few of the troublemakers might increase your awareness of the problem.

Redundancy: Write Tightdedicates 4 pages to common redundancies. And guess what? Many of them made my repeat offenders list mentioned in my previous blog, Echoes-Repeat Offenders. The repeat offenders are in red font below. Also pay attention to all the ly adverbs in blue.

  • Short minute – A minute is short
  • Rise up/lift up – If something rises, it’s going up
  • Dash quickly – To dash is to do it quickly
  • Absolutely certain/sure – If it’s absolute, it’s certain
  • Combined together/blended together – If we combine items, they are together
  • Clearly apparent – If it’s clear, it’s apparent
  • Appointed as – If appointed as one is appointed – appointed Secretary of . . .
  • Fall down – If something falls It goes down, not up so down is redundant
  • Exact same – Exact and same mean the same thing.
  • Radiate out/expand out – If something radiates, it’s moving outward so “out” is redundant.
  • Floral bouquet – A bouquet is usually indicates flowers
  • Respond back – A response is giving an answer or reaction “back.”
  • Seek out – If one seeks, they go beyond/out to search
  • Trace amount – Trace is a small amount, making amount redundant
  • Skip over – Skip is going “over” one thing to the next
  • Could possibly – If you could to something than it’s a possibility
  • True facts – Facts are true or they are not facts

Are you having an uh oh moment? I did. Habitually, we love to write “out,” “up,” and “down” after verbs just to make sure the reader gets it. It’s unnecessary flab.

The already understood: Certain nouns or labels are commonly understood and need no indentifying tags. Including them is overwriting.

Example:    …Mark Twain, the author who wrote the book, Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Most readers know Mark Twain was an author and most know Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a book. So all we need to write is: …Mark Twain who wrote Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Empty Modifiers: No surprise here. Many of these are ly adverbs. Basically -- usually -- ultimately -- very -- bit -- rather -- extremely

  • Weak: Basically, you have two choices
  • Stronger: You have two choices

Point of View Flab: This is a personal peeve of mine. When we’re in a characters head it’s not necessary to “tell” the reader he saw, felt, knew or heard something. Doing so, adds flab and makes the sentences passive rather than active. There are exceptions but eliminate weak verbiage whenever possible.

Example 1:  We’re in Jim’s head.

Instead of:  For once, Jim was glad to go to bed. As he dozed off, he heard his mom’s old Civic chug into the garage, choke and die. He knew money was tight but wished she’d buy a new car.

Use:  For once, Jim was glad to go to bed. As he dozed off, his mother’s old Civic chugged into the garage, choked and died. Money was tight but he wished she’d buy a new car.

Example 2:  We’re in Mary’s head.

Instead of:  Mary knew it was wrong to cheat on the math test. Still, she felt bad about Ann’s situation.

Use:  It was wrong to cheat on the math test, but Mary sympathized with Ann’s situation.

Wordy Verb Phrases - Or weak passive expressions: Notice the weak verbiage get, came, gives/give, put.

  • Instead of: We came to a decision -- Use: We decided
  • Instead of: He gets the math assignment -- Use: He understands
  • Instead of: Vitamins give you energy -- Use: Vitamins energize
  • Instead of: We put it to the test -- We tested

Since my crit partners here at WITS have named me the queen of lists, I am going to give you my entire list of wordy phrases with their alternatives. Mind you, whenever I find cool alternatives, I add to this list. I call it my Instead of Wordy Phrase List. Clunky, but it works. I’m sure every savvy writer can add even more phrases to this list. Check the websites listed below and you’ll find some. We hope you share more in the Comments.

  • Acted as chairwoman – presided
  • Along with – in addition
  • Announce names of – announce, identify
  • Appear on the scene – appear, arrive
  • Are indications of – indicates
  • Are suggestive of – suggests
  • Assess a fine – fine
  • Build up – fortify, store, collect, gathers
  • Came to a stop – stopped
  • Come to an end – ended
  • Comply with – follow, obey
  • Continue to remain – remain
  • Decide about (or on) -- decide, select
  • Devoured by flames – burned
  • Draws to a close – ends
  • Drink down – drink or drank
  • Enclosed herein – enclosed
  • Enter a bid of – bid
  • Example of – typify
  • Exchanged wedding vows – married
  • Face up to – face
  • File a lawsuit against – sue
  • Give rise to – cause
  • Give the nod – approve
  • Has got to – has to
  • Have an effect (impact) on – affect
  • Have got to – must
  • He was sent – dispatched
  • Grabbed hold of his shoulders – grabbed his shoulders
  • Infringe on (upon) – infringe
  • Is aware of or has knowledge of -- knows
  • Is going to – will
  • Is taking – taking
  • Know about – know
  • Made a speech or statement – spoke
  • Made an escape – escaped
  • Made its way – reached
  • Make contact with – meet, see
  • Make inquiry regarding – ask about
  • Makes his home – lives
  • Passed away – died
  • Put into effect -- start
  • Referred to as -- called
  • Stressed the point that – stressed that
  • Take into consideration – consider
  • Take place -- happen
  • Turn down – reject
  • Voiced objections – objected
  • Want, wanting – desired, resolved, intending, determined, aim, have designs,
  •                         set ones sights, plan
  • Went inside – entered
  • Went outside – exited
  • Win out – win
  • Withdrew – drew – as in drew his knife

Um, I have a Get Rid Of Get list too. Thought I’d save it for another time.

Helpful websites:

I’ve mentioned only a few types of flabby writing, so tell me, what kinds of flab have you trimmed lately?

0 comments on “Put Your Flabby Writing On A Diet”

  1. This is great. My old workshop was good at pointing out repeated words. Now, I watch for them. So many others are automatic. I know I really need to watch for them.

    Thanks for this!

  2. Great list. I'll keep it handy for when I start my next round of revisions. Thanks 🙂

  3. Agree - good post and a list like the one you offered can be invaluable. You are giving away a trade secret here.

    On a related note, however: I'm starting to wonder if the constant focus on eliminating unnecessary verbiage is a double edged sword. When I read a book where I really love the writing, a lot of time it's the EXTRA and the UNNECESSARY that makes the author shine.

    I also suspect this obsession with paring down is an American quality - the legacy of Hemingway - who holds a much greater sway over modern American authors than someone like Nabokov, who was unapologetically wordy, and whose genius lies in his frills. (in terms of genre novels, authors like Robin McKinley and N.K. Jemisin in the category of authors whose strength lies in the pure glory of their writing).

    Maybe it's just something that can't be taught, or it's easier to explain how to subtract than how to add. I can see how a writing teacher would have to be a masochist to give instructions like, "Go ahead, indulge yourself with unnecessary words that serve no obvious purpose!"

    Just as a final note - I don't disagree, one whit, with advice about editing away the dross. I just think the paring down process gets all the attention while the additive process doesn't get enough.

    1. Erin, thanks for the great comment! What you said about editing too much is always a danger. That's why I believe there are exceptions to every rule. If I find excess verbiage in dialogue, I esp. study the content, because every character has a speech pattern and changing it to fit rules is not always a "good" thing. The same might be said for a character's thoughts. There is a fine line between just enough and over-kill.

    2. Great point, Erin. Wordiness itself isn't always bad (hey, it works for the likes of Dean Koontz!)
      What I've found is what gets old fast is mindless repitition.
      There's nothing wrong with 'turned' or 'get' - it's just a problem when I use them 10 times each in one chapter!

      The thing is, it's lazy. I write them in, and on my next pass, they're my clue for where I have to write fresh. I find this makes ALL the difference in turning an average chapter into a good one.

  4. Ah, the Point of View Flab. I've been noticing it in my writing lately and have felt uneasy about it, but couldn't call it out clearly enough to make a point to stop, but your blog post has done just that. Thank you! It'll have a special spot in the front of my mind, now. 🙂

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