By flabby prose, I mean prose that includes unnecessary words. Besides improving the quality of one’s prose, cutting out excess words can help keep the word count down when there are page or word limits.
Stop Mentioning the POV Character’s Senses
Yes, sensory images are rich and desirable. What’s unnecessary is citing the character’s senses.
~She heard squirrels scampering up her tree.
~He smelled the tantalizing scent of acorns.
~They saw flying squirrels swooping overhead.
~Squirrels scampered up the tree outside.
~The scent of acorns filled the breeze.
~Flying squirrels swooped among branches overhead.
If the character describes a squirrel stealing a banana, the reader knows that character sees it and needn’t be told that he sees it. Ditto for other sensory systems. If they are mentioned, make it a conscious decision for a writerly reason.
Don’t forget the other senses! In addition to the five we all learned about in school, scientists classify up to 21 neurological senses. The body’s awareness of its place in relation to surroundings (proprioception) is invaluable to any character in tight spaces or moving quickly. Feelings of hunger or lack of air are classified as chemical senses, very useful to characters undergoing any kind of physical deprivation.
Consider also balance, gravity, pain, temperature, air pressure, the passage of time, itching, muscle tension, or even the perception of magnetic fields. There is an entirely separate set of nerves to detect stretching in the lungs, stomach, bladder, and blood vessels. Just think what a character could do when paying attention to that!
Stop Telling What a Character Notices, Remembers, Etc.
If a character recounts something from the past, it’s clear s/he remembers it. When a squirrel was a hairless kit, his mother taught him how to steal from bird feeders. He doesn’t have to tell his friends that he remembers being a kit.
Your reader doesn’t have to be told that the POV character noticed the squirrel hanging off the bird feeder again. It’s probably an event that happens every time the bird feeder is filled.
This is similar to how one handles what a character sees, hears, feels, smells, or tastes: it’s typically obvious in the rest of the sentence.
Beware Is, Are, Was, and Were
By and large, these verbs should be replaced by something stronger and less passive. “Fatigue weighs her down” is much stronger than “She is fatigued.”
Reconsider -ing Verbs
Is, are, was, and were often precede an -ing verb. For example, ”is walking” or “was walking” might better be replaced with “walks” or “walked.”
Question Every Adverb and Adjective
Some writing teacher or other once told me that an adverb modifying a verb is often hiding a stronger verb. For example, consider replacing “walked fast” with “rushed” or “hurried” or “scurried” or whatever fits the context.
Saying something is very tall or very beautiful is vague, triggering different images for different readers. Specify “over seven feet tall,” for example, or say what is beautiful about the person, object, scenery, etc.
And for goodness sake, don’t modify things that shouldn’t be modified, that are already specific. There is no such thing as ”very unique.” Unique means one-of-a-kind. If it isn’t truly unique, switch to “very rare”—and then consider whether the “very” is really needed! A second and a glance are, by definition fast/brief. Enough said.
Probably everyone knows that the most frequent, useful, and unobtrusive attribution is “s/he said.” True, when multiple people interact in a scene, the writer needs to identify whether it’s Joan, John, Susan, or Sam speaking. But when there are only two people in a scene, identifying/attributing every change of speaker gets clunky. Use sparingly.
If you’re unsure about whether it sounds clunky, try reading it aloud.
Bottom line: Go forth and tighten your prose!