Cutting the Fluff in Your Writing

In an increasingly competitive publishing market serving today’s society of readers afflicted with short attention spans, it’s more crucial than ever to write tight prose. But as weavers of words, authors want to be able to paint descriptive scenes and write emotive characterization, not simply shotgun plot points. So how do we find that elusive middle ground?

American writer Elmore Leonard once said “I leave out the parts that people skip”. But the question is ― what are those parts? What qualifies as fluff? And how can we cut the fluff and still leave a well-rounded story?

Fluff in writing could be described as anything that doesn’t move the story forward, set the mood or expand on your characters. With that in mind, here are some suggestions on how to cut the fluff from your own writing:

  • Avoid info dumps, especially early in the story. Chapter One is not the place to detail your character’s entire past life. This mistake is often made by beginner writers because they don’t yet know their own characters well enough.
  • Readers very rarely skim dialogue. So use dialogue whenever possible to advance the story and inform the reader. Be careful to keep the discussion tight and avoid padding it with throwaway conversation.
  • Integrate details of character/conflict/action with description to avoid large chunks of undiluted description. This has the added bonus of allowing the reader to see the setting/plot through the character’s eyes as described a few weeks ago in How to Create Mood and Atmosphere in Fiction.
  • Make the setting a ‘character’ in your story so that all included description is crucial to progressing your plot. Build in key elements of the setting to enhance the reader’s understanding of time and place.
  • Make sure that you only include details that are paramount to the story, not because they are important to you as the author. This information can be retained if you make those aspects important to the character and, therefore, relevant to your story.

Of all the points listed above, the last one is certainly the one that is nearest and dearest to my heart. I tend get too attached to specific places or certain aspects of science and I need to be reined in. Luckily for me, I have a partner and an agent who aren’t afraid to share their honest opinions with me.

How about you? Do you have bad habits when it comes to writing fluff that you have to weed out in the editing stage? Or do you have your own strategies on how to streamline your prose?

Photo credit: jspad