February 7, 2008

Write Less To Write Best

The days of the classic writers are gone. It is no longer acceptable to use 10 adjectives to describe every noun, as Dickens or Melville once did. (But can you blame them? If I were paid by the word, I'd describe the heck out of everything, too.)

More Is Not Better
The goal of writing is to convey a message. People -- especially people on the internet -- are becoming increasingly impatient, so you must convey your message quickly and clearly. And that means using as few words as possible and the best words possible.

As an example, look to your own reading habits. How often do you linger on a web page if all you see is a dense block of text? How much introduction do you tolerate before you demand substance? In the modern age of writing, the rule is clear: don't use 50 words to say what 10 words can.

You can improve your writing immensely by improving your use of description and by eliminating pointless introductory or qualifying phrases.

Fewer (and Better) Details
Your use of detail has a powerful impact on your writing. A writer quickly learns that all words are not equal -- some words are worth five to ten words!

For instance, if I were to send you an invitation to "a party at my house", how much would you know about the party? You'd know only that it exists, right?

But what if I sent you an invitation to "a kegger at my house"? Here I've used the same number of words, but I've communicated a lot more information! You can now make a lot of assumptions about the party. You would expect, for instance, a raucous party filled with booming music and obnoxious revelry. Around midnight, somebody's likely to be dancing on the end table, and the police will be escorting the minors out of the house by 3 A.M. (As an aside, you'd also figure I was joking, since I hate such parties and certainly wouldn't want the responsibility of hosting one.)

In this case, "kegger" is worth several words. By packing specificity into individual words, your writing becomes crisp and interesting without appearing overly descriptive.

Say It Boldly
Timid writing also threatens your message. Too often, needless introductory phrases or qualifiers weaken the message or destroy its clarity.

Consider this sentence: It may surprise you to know it, but I'm able to fly around the room by flapping my arms like a bird.

What purpose does the introductory phrase "It may surprise you to know it" serve? Does it convey any useful information? No! Of course it would surprise you to know it -- flying around the room by flapping your arms just isn't normal. The reader doesn't have to be told that it's surprising, because the statement is surprising in and of itself.

Qualifiers are also dangerous to your message. Consider the sentence, "I normally think that most people are usually pretty nice at times." What's the message in that sentence? Who could know? A bolder statement would be "I think people are generally nice." Bolder still would be "Most people are nice."

If your message is important enough to share with others, it's important enough to share boldly. After all, who would share your opinion if even you are ashamed of it?

The Proper Time and Place
Before you turn to something you've previously written and decimate the word count, remember that there is a proper time and place for details. At all times, you must keep the overall message in mind. Anything you can do to share that message with your reader, do it. But be aware of those things that may get in the way of sharing that message, such as clumsy phrasing or being timid about your message.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tells of the best writing advice he received, which I will paraphrase as: trim your first draft by ten percent.

This is fantastic advice. By condensing what you've written, you force out that weak writing that dilutes your message's potency. It also gives you persmission to trust that most of what you've written is actually usable.

As you can see, you are not on the hunt for a smaller word count for its own sake -- you are on the hunt for a smaller word count for the message's sake. By using the message as your guide, you ensure that your writing stays interesting and informative, even while concise.

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