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.