Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sent to the Prose Fat Farm

by Rachael Phillips

Perhaps you are one of the Ernest Hemingways of the writing world—an author whose lean, perfect prose moves over a page like a dancer in a sleek black dress. Your writing rarely has to go on a diet—it works beautifully as you’ve written it. No more. No less. Agents love it. Editors love it. The reading public loves it, because you have supplied spare, artistically written stories that satisfy, yet don’t leave them feeling stuffy and overfed. 
Then there are the Charles Dickens writers who love words, love them all and use them all any way they can. Dickens, for example, wrote four paragraphs at the beginning of A Christmas Carol simply to establish that Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge’s partner, was deceased. He included a 79-word side discussion as to whether a door nail is deader than a coffin nail.

I have always savored reading such paragraphs. And I love writing them. I love feeling overfed! However, the last time I attempted to slip something like that past my crit partner, she sent me to a literary fat farm, where they took away all the heavy tangents that marble my writing.

“What are you thinking! The fat is what makes it taste good,” I protested. “It gives my voice its unique flavor.”

“It kills your readers,” said my cruel trainer. “Nobody these days can digest all that.”

But that’s not all. They also denied me my favorite fluffy adjectives, claiming they smothered my nouns. The sugary ly adverbs also stole the impact of my action.

“What action?” my trainer said. “Your verbs are so flabby, they can’t stand on their own. Get them moving! Make your characters sprint, cling, shriek, crawl, fling, leap, and plop. Stop adding pounds and pounds of other words to prop them up. Is it really necessary to use ‘suddenly,’ ‘actually,’ and ‘literally’ 453 times in one manuscript?”

“I kind of like them.”

“You also used ‘kind of’ 177 times.” She glared at me, then at my manuscript again. “Once we get rid of all those, we’ll start cleaning out these extra ‘thats’—”

“Nooooh! Not my thats!” I shrieked (see, I can use an action verb when I want to).

“Too many uses of ‘the.’ You don’t need all those possessive pronouns, either.”

She says she’s trying to keep me from killing my readers. She’s killing my manuscript—not to mention, me. My poor book and I will starve to death.

But when my trimmed-down words move across the page, they now fit in their jeans and move without huffing and puffing. Perhaps even a slim little black dress is in the future. …

How about you? Have you ever been sent to a prose fat farm?

Or sent somebody else? 





  1. In my last edit I sent entire paragraphs to the slaughter house. I, too, love the marbling. *sigh* . Now it's ready for this skim-milk society. Nice post.

  2. "This skim-milk society"--what a great line, Mary! Although I don't think our culture is that healthy, literally or literarily. We're more into consuming handfuls of diet cookies.

    Writing for newspapers has helped me trim off some of the dangerous, ugly fat, though. I recommend it for others who have trouble keeping it off.

  3. My prose always starts skinny, and then I have to work hard to put weight on it. (Unfortunately, my body has the opposite problem.) And writing wasn't easy for Ernest Hemingway, either. I can't find it now, but I remember reading something where he said he would add a "the" in the morning, take it out in the afternoon, and put it back in the next day. (Or something like that.)

    1. Maybe someone should shake us in a bag, Kathryn! One of my profs told me she liked my work, but dreaded grading it because I always wrote way too much. (I should have taken the hint, but didn't.) Nice to know that writing wasn't magic for Hemingway, either.