As American editors sharpen their pencils, some advice on writing short
If two examples constitute a trend, then a movement is afoot among editors to encourage short writing. It began at The Washington Post, where an editor argued that many stories could be tighter. Before you could say “Strunk and White,” an editor at The Wall Street Journal made the same case.
What came next was predictable, and, from the point of view of us long-winded scribes, delectable. A writer declared, essentially, “Editor, heal thyself,” creating a marked-up version of the memo to cut its clutter.
As the author of the recent book "How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times," I found these developments encouraging, and, I must say, potentially profitable. Dear editors at the Post and the WSJ (and, if I may add, The New York Times), if you want to encourage tighter writing, please buy a couple of copies of my book and leave them in the break rooms.
Here is a free sample. It comes, as always, from the toolbox of Donald Murray, America’s greatest writing teacher ever: “Brevity comes from selection, not compression.” Here’s the idea: If you have a 700-word story, with room for only 500 words, don’t squeeze every quote or anecdote. Instead, cut the quote or anecdote that does the least work.
Do not, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch advised his students a century ago, “Murder your darlings.” No, publish your darlings. Knock off your brats.
That said, word editing still matters, as that rogue at the WSJ demonstrated. In Chapter 19 of “How to Write Short,” I take on perhaps the most famous pep talk on short writing ever delivered. Here is, appropriately, a short version of that chapter:
Cut it short.
I am ready to rebel against one of the most revered statements ever uttered by a teacher of writing. Delivered to his Cornell students over decades, this phrase was written by Professor William Strunk Jr. in the original version of The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” To which he added a now oft-quoted paragraph:
“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. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”
I count 65 words in this worthy or wordy paragraph. So which is it? Worthy or wordy? To answer that question, I decided to try reining in that paragraph within the corral of a 140-character tweet. Such an experiment might reveal pathways to intelligent cutting. I began by plugging the paragraph into Twitter to find that those 65 words equaled 386 characters, 246 over the limit. I looked for ways to whittle it down:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no extra words for the same reason that a drawing should have no extra lines. Not all sentences need be short and without detail. But every word must tell.”
What have we done here?
- Preserved the topic sentence
- Substituted the shorter extra for unnecessary (not exact synonyms, but close)
- Cut the analogy to a machine, preserving the one about drawing, which is more organic and protects the use of lines, a measurement for both artists and writers
- Kept the focus on the writing and not the writer, eliminating words necessary to describe the producer in favor of the product
That got us from 65 to 37 words, bringing the character count from 386 to 211, much tighter, but still not within Twitter margins. Let’s try again:
“Strong writing is concise. A text should have no extra words like a drawing with no extra lines. A sentence can be long with detail. But every word must tell.”
We’ve cut seven words and are down to 159 characters. Where will I find more “needless” words? I gained space by turning vigorous to strong and sentence to text, but I feel a slide toward brevity at the loss of nuance. But let’s not stop now:
“Strong prose is tight. A text needs no extra words like a drawing with no extra lines. A phrase can be long with detail. But every word must tell.”
That gives us 146 characters. Almost there:
“Write tight. A text needs no extra words as a drawing needs no extra lines. A sentence can be long with detail. But every word must tell.”
That’s 137 characters. Bingo! Three to spare. But at what cost?
Even E.B. White saw the problem and described it in his introduction to the book that would become known as Strunk and White:
“Omit needless words!” cries the author on page 17, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul. In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having short-changed himself, a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice said, “Rule Thirteen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”
As I re-read that paragraph, I wondered, Mr. White, what Professor Strunk might have said about your phrase “grasped his coat lapels in his hands.” Did you need coat? Where else would he find lapels? And did you need in his hands? What else would he grasp them with?
But then what kind of credibility does a guy have who writes a book on short writing?