Shortening prose

The second-hardest part of writing is cutting your own work. (The hardest is organizing, deciding what to say and how.) It’s not like trimming your fingernails; every precious word is like a finger.

My wife Joan and I once helped her colleagues out of a jam. They had worked for five hours to cut a key document in half, and managed to remove only ten words. We offered to take a crack at it. I chopped out three whole sections and any sentence likely to cause a fight. Then she revised the transitions. Fifty percent cut, 20 minutes flat. Not a miracle, just technique.

Here’s the basic principle: cut long, cut short, revise.

First of all, cool off. When you’ve been slaving over a piece, especially a long piece, you get too close and can’t see it. Take a break, eat a gelato, kiss your honey, whatever takes your mind off what you’re writing. Then come back fresh and see what works and what needs work.

Strunk and White advised, “Omit needless words,” but a lot of the words you need to cut may not seem needless. You can’t really shorten a piece by focusing on individual words or even sentences. You start with whole sections.

Ask yourself what the piece is about, and then examine each section. Does it contribute to what this is about? If not, adios section. Just cut it; remember anything you remove survives on the Clipboard. Then read through where it used to be, and usually you’ll find you didn’t need it.

Repeat this procedure for paragraphs.

Read the whole piece aloud from a printed copy. Put a tic in the margin by anything that’s hard to read, then go back and delete each bit that bumped you. You probably struggled to write it because it really didn’t belong.

Chop anything you really love. If you read along and say to yourself, “This is gorgeous; damn, I’m good,” cut that part. It’s probably self-indulgent, written for yourself and not for the reader.

When you’ve slashed and burned, you need to restore the flow by writing transitions, making sure all the characters are actually introduced, and checking that readers have all the information they need. Then you’ve done it, and (surprise!) it reads better.

But sometimes, you just can’t cut your own work. You’re exhausted or fed up or too involved, etc. You need somebody else to help you, either by doing the shortening, or by asking you questions about what your readers actually need. Don’t let this assistance become a habit; you want to control your own work.

I’ve just read this piece over, and it seems long. If it feels long to me, it’ll seem even longer for readers. So I need to cut it. That second paragraph with its self-indulgent anecdote about me and my heroic wife saving the day, has to go. Whack!

[Know any good chopping techniques?]

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Published in: on July 8, 2009 at 2:06 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I do believe all of the concepts you have
    presented on your post. They’re very convincing and can certainly work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are too quick for novices. May just
    you please extend them a bit from next time?
    Thanks for the post.


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