Setting down a lifetime of this trade's tricks, one at a time
Great advice. As Voltaire put it, "I would have made it shorter, but I didn't have the time."
I’d really like to write a great reply. I actually did. Then I axed it.
Man, how do you keep it real and still laugh? You’re on some serious government bullseyes now. Power to you.
I write legal briefs, often too wordy, for the court's consideration. ("Brief" being the wrong word, but that is what they are called.) One day, a judge rolled up my 15 page brief into a "telescope", put it up to his right eye and said, "Well, Mr. [Attorney}, I have looked through your brief...."
I am in need of this advice. No. I am needing this advice. No. I need this advice. No. Good advice.
Steve Sabol once told me the key is to take out every modifier word. The reader or listener will put them all back in by themselves.
Writing is rewriting. - Ernie Hemingway
My rule #1 is “Everyone needs an editor.” If none is available then realize that at least a third of what we write is out of fear of embarrassment or not being understood. I start with cutting adjectives, adverbs, and articles. I’m always amazed at the clarity that results.
“this whole brevity thing” was initially what drew me to twitter b/c the character-limit forces you to cut/edit/re-phrase until you have a distilled thought that’s ready to share.
and the corollary to this is that you never really know what you think until you’ve written through it.
One observation regarding what passes for a lot of writing today is hardly anyone proofreads. The mistakes I see daily in my local paper are sometimes amusing, but also distressing. I guess it’s just another indication of societal decline. Quality is becoming a rare commodity.
Thank you Matt for the quality of your writing.
Two rules I impose on my writing students:
- Prune branches, not leaves.
- Kill your darlings (attributed, probably incorrectly, to Faulkner).
Fantastic Matt, giving us a peek behind the curtain, and writing about something that inspires you, you deserve a break from the daily horrors!
I admire your brief, concise, terse, and pithy wordsmithing.
I remember Stephen King talking about this very issue years ago in both interviews, and his book on the writing process. I'm always embarrassed when I go back after a day or two away, and find that much of what I've written, and thought was good, was utter dribble and full of self-aggrandizing pulp. That's when I bring in the hatchet...
Did you ever read, "The Elements of Style?"
E.B. White's Cornell English prof originally wrote it for his students and White edited it for general publication. It's outstanding, and reducing word count is rule #1 there as well. Our 10th Grade English class used it and I still remember the painful sessions where we had to reduce word count by 50%. Ouch!
As an editor for 30 years (for newspapers and nonfiction books), I strongly agree with this first rule. Good editors (and there are plenty of bad ones, especially in journalism) know that being concise in language makes it more persuasive. I like to call it "letting the air out of the text."
Looking forward to other rules, Matt!
Hilariously TRUE! It parallels some advice I got from a dissertation advisor...he told me first drafts are always like a bad pitch, "too much wind up and not enough delivery."