How to Dissect Your Writing Like a Top Surgeon

    dissect your writing - operating table

    Does your writing suffer from wordflab?

    Wordflab is the number one enemy of good writing. At least, in the eyes of Sol Stein, the master editor who wrote Stein On Writing.

    Yes, folks – we’re back at school with Sol.

    This time it’s off to the operating table: We’re going to liposuction wordflab.

    Stein says:

    Flab-cutting is one of the best means for improving the pace of both fiction and non-fiction. When eliminated, the loss of fat has the welcome side effect of strengthening the body of the remaining text.

    Here’s how to operate on wordflab in two steps:

    1. Remove all adjectives.

    Once you’ve got rid of them, readmit a few after careful testing.

    Mark Twain hated adjectives. He wasn’t into surgery. He liked to kill.

    If you catch an adjective, kill it!”

    The great thing about taking out adjectives is that the resulting text is sleek and the pace quickens.

    Here are some examples by Stein. See what happens:

    The conspicuous bulge in his pocket had to be a weapon.

    ‘Conspicuous’ is expendable. The sentence surges ahead without the adjective: “The bulge in his pocket had to be a weapon”?

    How about this one?

    He was a strong, resourceful warrior.

    As Stein points out, the sentence sharpens as soon as you take out one of the adjectives. And the meaning shifts according to which one you leave in.

    Now we move to the second surgical procedure:

    2. Eliminate dispensable adverbs

    Dispensable? Yes, almost all adverbs are dispensable! Remember, adverbs are qualifiers. And many are fillers without substance or function – like ‘very’ or ‘quite’. (Sol suggests using the ‘find’ function to immediately delete every ‘very’ and ‘quite’.)

    Delete most adverbs for tight writing, but keep an eye out for two exceptions.

    • Adverbs that supply necessary information.
    • Adverbs that help the reader visualize the image you want to evoke.

    Let’s see how text is transformed through wordflab surgery.

    I’m jumping onto the operating table myself to subject my writing to adjective surgery. I’ve chosen a paragraph at random from a post I’m writing for Goodlife Zen. Here it is.

    Before the operation:

    There are times when it’s natural – and even necessary – to feel low for a while. Maybe you didn’t get the great job you wanted, or lose the one you had. You’re forced to sell your lovely home. Or you lose the person you love. When we suffer a loss – whether it’s the loss of a loved one, our job, our health, or a dream we’ve cherished – it’s quite natural to feel low.

    I’m on the table now. It’s scary. The mask is on and I’m counting backwards from ten…nine…eight… [Mary goes under].

    After the operation:

    I’ve come too and the surgeons have taken off the bandages. This is what the paragraph looks like now:

    There are times when it’s natural to feel low: you don’t get the job you want or lose the one you love; you’re forced to sell your home; you lose a loved one; you let go of a dream.

    Yes, loss makes us feel low.

    It seems tighter. What do you think?

    I find it difficult to be objective about my own writing. That’s why I find editing systems, like wordflab surgery, so helpful.

    What about you? Do you have the guts to put one of your paragraphs on the operating table and let us see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the comment section?

    In your haste to rush to the comment section, don’t forget that there’s no school without homework – Sol’s school included.

    Sol has left us a puzzle. Your homework is to solve it.

    Look at this sentence:

    There is nothing I would like better than to meet an interesting person who could become a new friend.

    How could it read after wordflab surgery?

    PS: Read my complete post-operative post Is Flexible Optimism a Key to Happiness?


    Image courtesy of Pixabay


    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at and for her cutting-edge book, Youthful Aging Secrets. In her “spare” time, Mary is also the brains behind, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Daniel Cox says:

      It is challenging to edit ruthlessly. I struggle between remaining conversational and getting to the point. Thank you for this important reminder.

      Here’s my homework:

      before: There is nothing I would like better than to meet an interesting person who could become a new friend.

      after: I would most like to become a new friend.

    • Larry says:

      William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” told us to enter our scenes at the last possible moment. That implies you know exactly what the scene needs to accomplish, allowing you to maximize tension and effectiveness without obligatory and less-than-necessary set up and description. And that’s flab-cutting at its best.

      This works for novelists, especially with thrillers and mysteries — and for that matter any genre after the initial settings have been established and the main characters introduced — as much as it does for screenwriters.

    • Steve Steiner says:

      I want a patron.

    • Friend now!

    • Pavan says:

      There is nothing I would like better than to meet an interesting person who could become a new friend.

      I would like to meet an interesting new friend.

    • Befriending an interesting person, there is nothing better.

      Not sure if there should be a semicolon in there or not… I’m no scholar or writing expert by any means, but I think as long as it is easy to read and gets the point across in a colorful way, its good.

      I like to just re-read my writing and feel it… if I get stuck on a part of a sentence, or if it doesn’t flow or feels awkward, I re-write it.

    • Hi friends,

      Here’s the homework result:

      “I would like to meet a new friend.”

    • Caroline says:

      I love puzzles; what’s Stein’s view on the friends sentence? Also – what’s the problem with a semicolon? Damned useful things, semicolons.

    • akka b. says:

      Addendum to Caroline’s suggestion:

      I would like to meet an interesting new friend.

    • Susan says:

      I am a surgical writer and love flash fiction. I support my habit of writing fiction by writing magazine articles (or as they’re now called — stories, which to me implies fiction, but whatever…)

      I had one magazine editor tell me my grammar was poor and redlined a story like an English teacher. Believe me, when I’m writing a story my grammar is not poor; I’ve just gotten used to writing with my own style which is what the other magazines like about me. Needless to say, that one let me go. No great loss. A larger magazine asked me to stylize my writing more; add more descriptives; use more dashes and exclamation points.

      The moral of my story is simple. When writing for a magazine read the editor’s opening page and then read any articles they have written in the magazine. Copy their style and you should be okay.

      With fiction, I am sparse. Entered a flash fiction contest of 100 words or less and was a runner up. It was 3 or 4 sentences and told my story.

    • Caroline says:

      I would like an interesting new friend.

    • You’ve totally convinced me to purchase “Stein on Writing.” I love his approach and philosophy on writing.

      Will be purchasing. Will be reading. Will, as a result, be improving my writing.

    • I can’t get beyond the dangling modifier in Stein’s flab-cutting quote.

    • Jennifer says:

      Great guide to better writing. But what about Kurt Vonnegut’s recommendation to “avoid the semicolon?” That’s one of my guiding lights. Terrific site.

    • Oke says:

      It seems this technique is useful in blog posting and reediting an essay, short story, and novel. I’m going to try this with my next blog post and see where it goes.

      This post and the last one will help eliminate the fluff and give me a better understanding of what my reader’s read.

    • anyone but me remember “Ecotopia”? As I recall, by law no adjectives could be used in advertising – an idea that made a real ad skeptic out of me.

      Here’s the wickipedia entry on the book:

    • Great recommendations. Another easy trick, for the written but not the spoken word: eliminate every ‘that’. Usually the sentence makes sense.

      In the old days of the printed word, we faced severe space limits so everyone had to write tight. The infinite web encourages people to go on and on and on…

    • Lots of useful ideas here which I will certainly apply. I do agree with Janice though. Too much surgery and we all end up looking the same. Yes, we can cut flab, but some people read our stuff because of its particular style. I guess the context is important. If you apply ALL the rules here, it will end up sounding like an instruction manual, which is fine for some writing, but not for all.

    • I once had an instructor who insisted that each rendition of a story be stripped by 10%, resulting in a story so spare that no additional words could be omitted without sacrificing meaning.

      This tactic is fine when I’m writing my own sentences because as long as I’m comfortable with slight variations in meaning, the streamlined version is almost always more direct, and therefore, more lively. However, when copyediting others’ work, it’s important to retain the meaning intended by the author. And that meaning isn’t always known.

      A simple example: in the ‘homework assignment’, is the important point the meeting (the original wish) or the befriending (the possible outcome)? Without knowing, I would suggest that the original text:

      “There is nothing I would like better than to meet an interesting person who could become a new friend.”

      …could be shortened, and therefore strengthened, as follows:

      “I would like nothing better than to befriend an interesting person.”

      This version omits the ‘meeting’ and emphasizes the end result: the befriending. But in so doing, am I altering the intent of the author’s original two-part wish?

      What do others think? Am I over-analyzing this?

      As for your pre- and post-op text, Mary, I think the streamlined version is better. But I would add one word back in – in fact, I’d introduce it to both versions. To me, the phrase below needs the ‘you’ I’ve added in brackets, since when I read it without the additional subject, I carry over the ‘don’t’ to the second part of the sentence.

      “There are times when it’s natural to feel low: you don’t get the job you want or [you] lose the one you love; you’re forced to sell your home; you lose a loved one; you let go of a dream.”

      This also adds a nice parallel to the rest of the paragraph, since there are ‘you’s’ in every other statement.

      Just a thought. Nice blog topic.

    • Brenda says:

      To meet someone new and interesting, a potential friend, is a desire.

      See my problem – constantly ‘fixing’! But this brings a more friendly element to the sentence. To me, the concept of “meet” implies “new” and so I don’t think it necessary to use those two words together, yet adding “new” provides a little ‘colour,’ a little implied excitement, a potential adventure: a “new” person… so when I come back to the little sentence, I decide to leave the redundancy in. Let the infinitive and the adjective have a self-reflexive referentiality to them, that’s how we are, going out and meeting and coming back to ourselves. 🙂

    • Brenda says:

      To meet an interesting person, a potential friend, is a desire.

      It’s hard to reword without the context.

      Cutting flab does strengthen writing, and editing your work is crucial. But not to forget that we live in a world composed of things and energies, nouns and verbs, but also of infinite variations on those two constants. Without adjectives, we lack the nuances of colour; without adverbs, the nuances of our feeling-responses.

      Used sparingly, like herbs and spices when cooking, is probably the best way to approach them.

      If you have too many adjectives strung onto one noun you’re overloading the broth.

      Thanks for the article, Mary. A nice reminder!

    • Jae says:

      Interesting blog. I never thought of adjectives as the enemy before.

      If you’re interested in nonfiction, you may want to check out There are several writing contests, including an elements writing contests, with the theme: water.

    • HI IvánPérez!
      thanks for getting on the operating table. I loved your rewrite!

      I’m not going to give away the secret answer to Sol’s answer just yet.

    • Hi friends, it’s great to wake up in far away New Zealand, go on the Net and find such interesting comments!

      @ Random Thoughts
      The Tolkien re-write made me laugh. Not quite fair, though. We’re talking contemporary writing style, right? Otherwise I’ll bring up Andrew Marvell (17.century) with his wonderful line: “A green thought in a green shade”!

      I hate plastic surgery too. That’s an interesting point. Does too much liposuction kill the individuality of one’s style? Not sure…

      @ Ilaria
      I think you’ve made an important point:
      “There are times when it is vital to be concise, and others where being concise means being obscure”
      One thing that occurred to me when writing the post is that transitions are important. When we go concise, we sometimes neglect transitions from one idea to another.

      Anyone interested in writing a guest post about transitions?

    • Kelly says:

      Brilliant! Have sent it out via Twitter…

      If amateur (and I suppose professional) writers would pull back just a bit, their writing would improve immensely.


    • I really enjoyed this post as well as previous one on writing less.

      Legend has it, when James Ellroy delivered The Cold Six Thousand to his publisher at the beginning of the decade it came in at 800 pages. They demanded a reduction in page count.

      Instead of removing pages or paragraphs he hacked words out of the individual sentences. He brought it in at 700 pages with punchy 4-5 word sentences.

    • Homework surgery: I would like to meet a new friend.

      From one of my upcoming posts:


      “Taking the decision to achieve a dream, like seriously, is really tough. Dreams are something very beautiful, but in order to fulfil them you’ll have to commit your life. I would be lying if I told you something different. You are going to hit a lot of walls, you will doubt yourself; there will be times when you don’t see any results and you’ll want to quit… But they are your dreams, so I guess all that stuff won’t really matter. Passion beats everything.”


      “Deciding to achieve a dream is tough. To fulfil them you’ll have to commit your life. You are going to hit a lot of walls, you will doubt yourself; there will be times when you don’t see any results and you’ll want to quit… But they are your dreams, so never mind. Passion beats everything.”

      Thanks for this amazing article.

    • Homework rewrite: I need a friend.

    • s says:

      Reading even comments (Janice, Ilaria, myself) is a visual torture. I have to select the text with the mouse so that it will be highlighted white on blue to be able to read what they say.

    • Writer Dad says:

      Random Visitor – that was awesome!

      Mary, I edit other people’s words for many hours every week. It is true, there’s a lot of fat out there. Word count matters not. It’s the sense in the syllables that truly matters. There is always room for colorful prose, but only after you clear the clutter.

    • Hi Mary,

      here is my answer to the homework question:

      “There is nothing better than making a friend.”

      That being said, too much of a good thing can be too much. I liked your paragraph before the surgery better than after.

      There are times when it is vital to be concise, and others where being concise means being obscure. Certain concepts cannot and should not be boiled down to five words. That’s why we have books. 🙂
      Otherwise, every book could be a blog post.

      I love this blog, and as I have a tendency to ramble on, I truly appreciate the help I get from being reminded of healthy wordflab surgery.

      But there is nothing I love better than a long, slow, rambling, beautifully written novel.

      Want to be friends? I hope so!

    • Love this post! I think it depends what you’re writing for, but for work I always need things to be as short and concise as possible so this is a GREAT article for me. Love the title too – so creative!

    • janice says:

      Random Visitor rocks!

      Mary, I love Goodlife Zen. Be careful with the scalpel. Have you ever noticed that too much plastic surgery, liposuction and botox makes everyone look the same?

    • random visitor says:

      “Down a long flight of steps the Lady went into a deep green hollow, through which ran murmuring the silver stream that issued from the fountain on the hill. At the bottom upon a low pedestal carved like a branching tree, stood a basin of silver, wide and shallow, and beside it stood a silver ewer. With water from the stream Galadriel filled the basin to the brim, and breathed on it, and when the water was still again she spoke.”

      “Down a flight of steps the Lady went into a hollow, through which ran the stream that issued from the fountain on the hill. At the bottom upon a pedestal, stood a basin, and beside it stood a ewer. With water from the stream Galadriel filled the basin to the brim, and breathed on it, and when the water was still again she spoke.”

      (From JRR Tolkien’s LOTR.)

      Well… 🙂

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