Thursday, July 5, 2012

Advice for Writers--Better by Half

Sometimes, revision means discarding a particular word that doesn't "ring" and finding one that does. Other times it might mean going through and looking for passive voice. Or the same words used in close promixity to each other. I wrote something recently and used the word "personal" three times within two sentences. Sometimes I can substitute a synonym. Sometimes I have to reconstruct the sentence(s). All these things come about when I am throwing down a first draft. Just get it down and fix it later.

For this post, I want to consider cutting parts of writing. I know, none of us wants to discard a single precious word that flows from the ends of our fingers (or however else you might produce writing--I don't want to limit anyone here). Most of the time, though, making something shorter makes it better.

I have had the good fortune to write a column for two local papers in the past four years, and typically, those columns run to about 750 words. I can write more, but I don't want to irritate my editor by forcing her to rework a piece to make it shorter. That's my job. You probably recall the inverted triangle (pyramid) structure of a news story. Important stuff in the lead paragraph (but punch it up!), other stuff in order of decreasing importance. That's so if the poor longsuffering editors needs to cut your deathless prose, they can lop it off at the end with little lost. Columns, not  so much since the last sentence where I put wisdom of the ages (or a really weak pun, whatever).

So, I had a story I had written a few years ago and had never published. Yes, I sometimes write things for the fun of writing them. I know that's an odd practice. This wonderful story ran to 1500 words, and I needed to cut it down to 750 for the column.

My practice is first to go through and eliminate paragraphs that can depart. There are usually two or three.

Next, I see if I can cut out some of the dialogue. I like to use dialogue because it speaks to me (there's your weak pun!).

Then, I chop out sentences that would enjoy a respite.

And finally, we get down to it when I cut out words that aren't necessary.

That's how I cut the story in half. Actually, it took longer to edit the column down to size than it would have to write a fresh one. But I liked the approach and message of a piece and it's worth taking the time to make it right and to make it shorter.

And that's the long and short of it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great post, Dan! It's interesting to see how people edit, in particular, the order of operations. Your process sounds fairly linear. Mine is not. Then again, not much of what I do is linear.

    I absolutely LOATHE when I overuse words. That's one of the first things I look for when I edit. And if I miss something, finding it after the piece was printed, I cringe and say nasty words.

    The only problem with this editorial obsession (other than the foul language it encourages) is that even when I do want to repeat words for the sake of rhythm or effect, I wonder if I should. This inner-argument usually starts when I'm writing poetry. At some point, I have to tell my editor to shut up and just go with it. Fortunately, when it comes to poetry, I am usually my own editor.