Short and Sweet

When my first daughter was born, people came out of the woodwork with advice, but my buddy Kevin gave me this little nugget:

You’ll want to tell people about everything your kid does. Don’t. No one cares. If you absolutely have to tell a story, keep it to three sentences and make sure it’s funny.”

Three sentences is not a lot. Maybe forty-five to fifty words. Despite the challenge, I saw the wisdom in the advice, and kept my kid anecdotes short.

How do we, as writers, say the most with the fewest number of words? We’re all challenged to write e-mails, letters, articles, posts, and tweets that are succinct, lest we get the TL;DR brushoff. Anyone writing a haiku* has this problem. Twitter forces this issue mercilessly.

As I’m editing A Togahan’s Chance, I’m reveling in word choice and flow, on a sentence by sentence basis. I’m constantly asking, “How can I twist this sentence, convey all the same ideas, paint the same picture, with all the right, relevant bits, but with fewer words and a flowing, elegant structure?” **

It’s not easy, and I don’t have any real advice except this: Read—a lot—and when you see writing that works, notice how it works. When it doesn’t work, note why it failed. I’m reading one book now that’s a pretty good story, but the writing is sloppy in some areas. It’s distracting. Before that, I read Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, and that writing was very tight, efficient, and fluid. I wish I wrote even half as good as he does.

The second bit of advice: re-read. Review everything you write and see where you can shorten it up, because the first draft is always wordy. Practice this daily with every e-mail, every post, and you’ll get better at it.

I’m reminded of a quote I heard in a design seminar, attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.

Yeah, I like that. Got any editing advice? Please share it in the comments.

-Pete

 

*Although I learned the 5-7-5 technique back in high school, and wrote plenty of dorky poems to pass, it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I finally appreciated the efficiency in a good haiku. (And nothing tops a well formed Olestra Haiku).

**And as an exercise in editing, let’s trim that sentence down:

  1. How can I craft this sentence and paint the same picture, with all the right, relevant bits, but fewer words and a flowing structure?” Better, eliminated some redundancy.
  2. How can I keep all the same meaning, paint the same picture in your mind, but with tighter, non-redundant language?” No. That’s just clumsy.
  3. How can I tighten up this sentence, but convey all the same, relevant ideas?” Better, but it seems we’re trading passion for efficiency. It lost some meaning.
  4. How can I make it gooder?” – Screw it, I’m tired.
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