Trimming the Fat

Before going on Scribophile, the last people to read anything I put effort into writing were college professors. As a Computer Science major, every paper I wrote was for a general education course, and most of those professors didn’t bother reading papers thoroughly. One professor even shared, openly, that he grades entirely based on length. End result: I have a bad tendency to be overly verbose when I write. The professor who graded based on length got papers that included discussions on video games, dogs, and snack foods, despite teaching Anthropology.

Because of this, one of the best things I get out of critiques are places I can remove words and even entire paragraphs. Even when I think I have a great piece of writing (well, great for me, which is a low bar), there are things that can be removed. From a recent piece I posted:

When a badger gets in a coop and eats the chickens, you don’t blame the badger. Animals follow their nature, and men like this are no different. Killing one badger doesn’t keep another from attacking the chickens later, and killing our friend here won’t stop future attacks against us. It’s the responsibility of the dog to protect the chickens before the badger gets a chance to butcher them, and it’s the duty of the farmer to train the dogs. If your guards are spread too thin it’s your responsibility, your obligation, to fix the problem.

I liked that. I mean really, really liked that. Sure it’s not perfect, but I read that and thought I had something going. My main character got to be wise and awesome and badass. Then a critiquer trimmed the fat and did this:

When a badger gets in a coop and eats the chickens, you don’t blame the badger. Animals follow their nature, and men like this are no different. Killing one badger doesn’t keep another from attacking the chickens later, and killing our friend here won’t stop future attacks against us. It’s the responsibility of the dog to protect the chickens before the badger gets a chance to butcher them, and it’s the duty of the farmer to train the dogs. If your guards are spread too thin it’s your responsibility, your obligation, to fix the problem.

She summed up her suggestions with this:

Essentially, Badasses communicate more by action than words. When they do speak, it is “man of few words.” But each word has been carefully chose. Why? These kinds of men don’t have time to stand around chatting. They have shit to do, and usually they need to do it fast. Over time, thus kind of communication becomes second nature for them.

Mind blown.

Not only is the edit better, she hit the nail on the head with how my own character should act. I was so close to the story I couldn’t see the forest through the trees, but a fresh set of eyes helped point out the obvious.

In the next chapter one of the regular people who critiques my work described this same character as preachy, something I felt too but couldn’t figure out how to solve. I knew it was with a long speech he gave, but the speech was important and I couldn’t just cut it. Until, you know, somebody deleted it and showed me it worked even better.

It can be hard to see the fat, especially when you’ve been working a piece of meat for so long, but the fat is there. Identifying it means you can cut it, and that means tighter prose and a better story. If you can’t identify your own shortcomings (of which I have many), that second pair of eyes helps.

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