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Monday
Jul112005

Tip IX: Write Tightly

When you write, remember to write tightly. One of the main reasons writers like to write long articles is because it's much easier to write loosely. But that's a lousy practice.

Writing tightly requires you to cut out all kinds of stuff from your precious article. And nobody likes to do that. But being a professional writer means having the discipline to murder your darlings.

Every time I write an article, I still have to force myself to cut out some of my favorite bits from the story. It's always a struggle but I eventually do what's necessary. What survive my scalpel are the absolutely essential bits.

Thre rules of thumb for writing tightly:

1.
Never write a paragraph where a sentence will do; and never use a long word where a short one will do

2.
If it's possible to cut a word out, cut it out

3. Stick religiously to assigned word length. This will force you to cut out non-essential information and avoid detours that might be interesting to you but will detract from the focus of your story.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
– William Strunk Jr, author of The Elements of Style

To keep your copy tight, you should start by distilling your raw notes and quotes before you even begin writing. The danger of not doing so is that everything ends up being used. Then what you get is a jumbled mess, not a story.

Remember, in composing your story, you only want the most illustrative anecdotes, the most essential details and the most memorable quotes. So, be merciless in cutting out everything else.

“If you used every quote you got, your stories would go on forever... So you use your quotes to bolster the main points of your stories, and then cut it off...”
– Russell Eshleman, Jr, The Philadelphia Inquirer

A common response I get from writers when I ask them to cut out stuff from their stories is “But, I don't want to waste anything”. That's a wrong attitude to have. Just because some information doesn't get used doesn't mean it's wasted.

The next time you find yourself thinking “I shouldn't be wasting this quote” remember the “iceberg effect”. When you see an iceberg, all you are seeing is the tip. A huge chunk of it is hidden away beneath the surface of the water. Similarly, every good story is derived from a whole bunch of interviews, data and research material that don't necessarily make it to the final story. Their roles are to help you gain a better understanding of the topic you are writing about.

“The main rule of a writer is never to pity your manuscript. If you see something is no good, throw it away and begin again. A lot of writers have failed because they have too much pity. They have already worked so much, they cannot just throw it away. But I say that the wastepaper basket is a writer's best friend. My wastepaper basket is on a steady diet.”
– Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature

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