Tighten your writing

Tighten your writing

Dear reader: Instead of launching my 814-part blog series entitled, The Forgotten Needle-Point Artists of Baroque Outer Mongolia, I’ve decided to dish more writing advice. This one is for the post-beginner, pre-intermediate writer, whom scientists call begintermediate. Unless you prefer the archaic form, intermeginner.

Start…

Perhaps you are no longer a novice writer and have figured out compositional mechanics. Commas fall in the right places, and your paragraph breaks are where they should be. You’ve gotten pretty good at developing and presenting your ideas in a logical sequence. Irrelevant tangents are in the past. Your mom has started telling people you write “just like J.K. Rowling.”

Yet you look at the page and wonder why it doesn’t quite sound professional. You went over the damn thing 50 times, for God’s sake.

You show it to a more experienced writer, who says, “This isn’t finished,” and throws it back at you without explanation. Instead of thinking writers are arrogant pricks, you should be realizing you need an editor, not a writer. An editor would say you have too many superfluous words.

Superfluous words are invisible, yet they sit in plain sight. As an example, read this fictional confession to a crime:

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed all those bank robberies! While you ran around like chickens with your heads cut off, I successfully knocked over ten different banks in ten different states, and I did it while I was wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe that you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went over to the deli next door, ordered some ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down the street with your lights flashing and your sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have any questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me here in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside of your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

That’s not the most poorly written confession/boast ever, considering that Finster dropped out in the 8th grade, but it can be tightened.

Let’s make some cuts:

 

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed all those bank robberies! While you ran around like >headless< chickens with your heads cut off, I successfully knocked over ten different banks in ten different states, and I did it while I was wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe that you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went over to the deli next door, ordered some ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down the street with your lights flashing and your sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have any questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me here in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside of your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

Here’s what it looks like with the cuts. Finster is still a bad guy, but his confession pops off the page now, thanks to some surgical editing:

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed those bank robberies! While you ran around like headless chickens, I knocked over ten banks in ten states, and I did it wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went to the deli next door, ordered ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

You’ve heard professional writers say, “Cut anything that doesn’t add meaning.” I try to avoid such absolutes, as sometimes words can improve rhythm or punctuate humor without being technically necessary. However, some words are frequently extraneous, and the biggies are Any, All, That, and Some. You can often lose these without confusing meaning.

I cut others above for redundancy. Ditch “different” when it follows a quantity, like “I’ve owned seven different cars.” So goes for “successfully” finishing a race, as you either finished the race or didn’t. Similar words that can often be chopped are “completely” and “totally.”  It suffices to say the rebels destroyed the Death Star. Completely destroying the Death Star is just cruel, and, frankly, unbecoming a Jedi.

If you read through your prose and decide it needs more professional sheen, seek and destroy those formerly invisible, needless words, and the ones that remain will pop out. Better yet, totally destroy them.

 

Questions, comments, and insults are welcomed…

 

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16 responses to “Tighten your writing

  • CanaryTheFirst

    So true; it’s not about the word count but about making the words count. Learning to prune back the story was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my writing.

  • nrhatch

    I completely and totally agree. 😀

  • Paula Tohline Calhoun

    I have some good insults, but they will have to be edited – er – tightened up. Since you are obviously referring to my writing, I haste to point out that you are just assuming that I am an intermeginner. I am not. I’ll leave it to your all-encompassing, total, and complete expertise to figure out exactly what I am. When you figure it out, keep it to yourself.

    Actually, good article, Eric. I’ll leave it to you to edit that comment. . .

    • ericjbaker

      A person wouldn’t paint over a Picasso, so why would I edit your comment?

      I think I know how to classify you, but I am not a trained psychologist and will keep it to myself.

      😉

  • Sangeet Sangroula

    Nice….i hope to learn from u..will u assist me to solve my problem?

  • Hensatri

    Solid advice. I learned to cut almost every instance of “very” from my writing a long time ago. You provided a number of other examples here that I would not have thought of.

    I had a professor who demanded the mid-term essay be “3 pages exactly. 12 point Times New Roman, double spaced.” He would penalize any paper that was not exactly 3 pages to within a couple of words. When we asked him about this strange requirement he told us, “If you don’t have sufficent mastery of the English language to hit that mark, then you shouldn’t be in this class.”

    I enjoy words and long sentences with complex structure. It is an indulgence, but probably alienates some readers.

    I don’t know about cutting out superfluous words as an absolute rule, and I am glad you made that concession. There is something to be said for the rhythm, flow, and poetry of a sentence.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for commenting. I’ve been reading your blog for the past year (you’ve seen me comment as ‘Old Ancestor’) and continue to be impressed by your skill at articulating ideas and building arguments. And your all-around writing ability.

      My favorite professors were the demanding, sometimes cantankerous ones. Although, after experiencing a succession of teachers with quirky rules about font sizes, margins, paper stock, and so forth, I remember asking my Criminal Justice professor if he had an particular requirements for a research paper we were assigned. He said, “I don’t care if you write it in blood.” I laughed.

      • Hensatri

        Thanks for the compliment. Coming from someone trained as a wordsmith I will hold the compliment in high order. I’m glad you posted with this account, rather than Old Ancestor, or I would not have discovered this Blog, which I am enjoying so far.
        I don’t post nearly as often as I should. I am getting back into it though. I’ve been contemplating taking the material from my Blog, reworking it, supplementing it, and publishing an e-book. I am sure some of the advice on this blog will be incredibly useful.

        • ericjbaker

          I look forward to reading it one day. It seems like your themes have evolved toward a more nuanced, multi-level perspective, and I’d like to see how you decide to organize and expand upon the material.

          On an unrelated note, did I mention that I do freelance copyediting?

        • Hensatri

          I will certainly keep that in mind. It’s nice to have a contact with a bit of knowledge about this stuff.

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