Cutting the fluff in writing…and in life

[A version of this was originally written for a message I gave at my church, House of Saints and Sinners.]

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

Endless tips for better writing exist, especially when it comes to “cutting the fluff” of adjectives and adverbs that leave an otherwise solid story looking like this:

big hair

Photo Credit: ozfan22 via Compfight cc

When my public relations writing starts to become a buzzword bouffant, I take my frustration out in poorly drawn cartoons.

4-cartoon

But an overabundance of fluff isn’t limited to the PR industry.

Our personal stories, too, can be stuffed with “adjectives” and “adverbs” that don’t add value to our lives. For me, fluff often comes in the form of overcommitment or being “busy.” Is that the word I would choose as the title of my life?

One article about cutting the fluff, written by a college student, posed three questions before offering tips for concise writing. The questions–with my reworded versions–apply just as much to life as they do to writing.

How would you answer?

car crash

Do your essays tend to veer off course?

Does your life tend to veer off course?

If you fill a story with too many adjectives, unnecessary details, and subplots, the meaning becomes lost.

The same thing can happen with our lives when we’re too busy. We try to follow too many plot lines simultaneously. We become distracted. We veer off course.

When I was a kid, a teacher told our class to run down the field but to look down at our feet the entire time. We attempted to avoid smashing into the classmates in our periphery until the teacher yelled “Stop!” and we looked up to discover we were far from our intended finish line. He sent us back to the starting point, and told us to now fix our gaze on a point directly ahead of us and not take our eyes off of it as we ran. We all ran straight and true to the finish.

How do we stay on course?

In Charles Hummel’s booklet “Tyranny of the Urgent,” he quotes P.T. Forsyth, a Scottish theologian. “The worst sin is prayerlessness.”

Hummel says the root of all sin is self-sufficiency in terms of independence from God’s rule.

Think about that running analogy. As we pray–as we keep our eyes fixed on God–he “makes our paths straight.” The path literally becomes straight under our feet as we run the race.

annie dillard

Do you find that it takes the entire paper to finally get to the point, the real meat of what you want to say?

Do you find that it takes an entire life to finally get to the point, the real meat of how you want to live?

Ernest Hemingway is known for his short, straightforward sentences. One day, Hemingway was at lunch with a group of writers and bet each of them that he could write an entire novel in six words. After the money was collected, Hemingway grabbed a napkin and wrote: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

It is unclear if this actually happened, but this six-word novel illustrates the power in minimalism.

A painful exercise writers practice is cutting out the first paragraph or even the first page of an essay or story. Why? Because often writers spill out hundreds of unnecessary words before delving into the action that draws in readers.

I wonder how much of my day looks like that. The fluff, the urgent, fills in the spaces when I should be starting with prayer, with my mind stayed on Christ. I intentionally made such a choice this morning. I started by picking up my Bible, sitting beside my husband, and reading the book of Micah. I’m not saying God made the sun stand still, but somehow my morning seemed to stretch out before me rather than rush by before work. I had time to write. I had time to read. And still do my hair and throw a load of laundry in.

So if time hadn’t changed, what had? I believe it was my perspective. My spirit was focused on the important and not the urgent.

Maybe some of us have discovered how to live fully every day. Or maybe we get to the last years and realize our life hasn’t said what it needed to. What is the point of my life? I sit at my desk asking myself if this is where I’m supposed to be. And if it is, am I living it out with the attitude and effectiveness God called me to live it out? Am I filling my life with fluff, the good instead of the right?

book watch

You’ve got so many great ideas and so many points that you could cover, and yet there’s a page limit.

You’ve got so many great ideas and so many dreams to realize, and yet there’s a time limit.

In a recent post about work-life balance, Arianna Huffington referenced a “chilling” statistic from the satirical news source “The Onion.”

“Despite the enormous efforts of doctors, rescue workers and other medical professionals worldwide, the global death rate remains constant at 100 percent.”

We sometimes live with a false sense of security in the amount of time we have to live. We sometimes have that same sense in regard to our relationship with God. The leaders and people in Micah’s day, one of rampant idolatry in Judah, believed they had God’s perpetual favor because of God’s covenant with David, because the temple still stood. The priests and prophets believed they were safe because they had been chosen and God wouldn’t punish them for turning their calling into a business. They were probably surprised when Micah started comparing them to evil Samaria and warning them that the Lord would be melting some mountains under his feet.

Our fluff can become our idols, no matter how good the things that fill up our minds, our days, or our pages may appear to be.

Writers are taught that every character, every scene should add to the story. No matter how beautifully written, how exciting, how brilliant, if it doesn’t move the story along by causing the main character to develop, it should be cut out. That can be painful.

Look at each day as a page in your story. What kinds of things would you find painful to cut out of your life? Would it be the overtime, a hobby, social media? What in your life isn’t really adding to the development of your main character?

A Bible verse about fluff

 OK, there isn’t a Bible verse about fluff, but I pondered what God requires of us.

The answer lies in one of my favorite verses, Micah 6:8.

book of micah

8 ”He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

I made two discoveries as I contemplated these verses.

First, the syntax is concise, the question blatant, and the answer powerful in its simplicity. I paid closer attention to who was being addressed–O mortal (and I felt compelled to read it in a Gandalf voice). The usage of the term “mortal” certainly reminds us of our limits. The structure of the sentence and its message illustrate the focus and purpose that writing–and a life–without fluff should look like.

 Lastly, I looked at the verse preceding it.

 7 “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

 From a literary standpoint, Verse 7 is dramatic, exaggerated…fluffy, if you will. Verse 8 is starkly different and reminds me of God’s rules for writing our stories.

That God isn’t asking for our overcommitment, just our commitment. That God doesn’t require fluff, he requires action verbs.

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4 thoughts on “Cutting the fluff in writing…and in life

  1. Amanda, I always find myself reading your articles very slowly, soaking in each word and sentence. Thank you again for another inspiring article. Your insights are always such a blessing to me. (sorry for all the adjectives)

    Like

  2. We’re in sync, Amanda. Just this morning, I grabbed my Bible determined to start my day as I should. It sets the tone. The post is full of encouragement and I know I will be reading it again and again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for starting your day reading this, too, Jo Lynn! I was just walking into work feeling energized like I always do after writing (and a little emotionally exhausted) and hoping someone would read and feel the same way. Except for the exhausted part.

      Your comments always encourage me. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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