There’s power in being able to say exactly what you mean in as few words as possible. As Pascal said in one of his letters, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” It takes skill to get your message across without wasting a great deal of breath. To know which words are essential, which description adds the most value, etc. is an ability crafted over many years of writing.
While it’s generally a handy skill to have, brevity often comes down to a stylistic choice. It’s a choice I make in much of my writing. Therefore, please know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing long. It certainly has its place. World building takes words, complicated emotions can take many words to divulge accurately, and so forth. But the exercise I’m about to detail is intended for those who wish they wrote more concisely, and want to challenge themselves to do so.
This exercise isn’t just intended for professional writers, but also for anyone who writes—and we all write, don’t we? Do you have a hard time keeping your emails to just a couple of paragraphs? Are you too familiar with writing a letter to someone, getting several pages in, and wondering what the heck you’ve actually said? This exercise is for you, long-winded one. Give it a try.
Step 1: Write 100 words. Not sure how long that is? The second paragraph of this blog post is 85, just to give you an idea. A hundred words is roughly a paragraph. These 100 words can be about anything. However, some people find the idea of free writing rather intimidating. Therefore, if you’re a:
Fiction writer: Describe the throne room of a king who’s not respected by his people.
Nonfiction writer: Write about a memorable holiday.
Poetry writer: Write about the beach at night.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to start from scratch, take a paragraph from something you’re currenlty working on. You could even take the last email you wrote that was way longer than necessary.
Have your 100 words? Great.
Step 2: Take out 50 words. Anything that isn’t essential should get cut here. You decide what’s essential, of course, but do try to remove half of your paragraph. Get to the meat of the matter. What is it about, really? Say what’s essential and remove the rest. Welcome to the threshing floor!
Step 3: Take out all of the adverbs. Anything that describes how something was done. E.g., quickly, seriously, meanly, etc. Too often, adverbs serve as crutches that result in weak writing.
Step 4: Take out all of the adjectives. Wait, all of them, you ask? Yes, all of them. This is just an exercise, remember? Humor me.
Step 5: Remove any redundancies. People who write long often do so because they say the same thing in several ways, often unnecessarily. For example, in a work email you may have said, “As we continue with this project, I’ll watch to make sure we stick to our schedule. It’s my job to ensure we get this done on time. Accountability is important with this effort, and I assume responsibility for managing competing priorities.” You just said, “I’ll help keep us on schedule,” three times. Remove these needless redundancies, opting to say it clearly just once.
Step 6: Change passive voice to active when possible. Continuing with our work email example, you ask someone for advice by saying, “I was wondering about what the best way might be to do this and hoped that you could help me.” You could change that to, “What’s the best way to do this?” That’s a change from twenty words to seven. It’s amazing how we can say so little with so many words, and say so much with so few. Say it simply, and say it well.
Read your new, far shorter paragraph. What do you think? Most likely, the ideal length for your paragraph is somewhere between the one you started with and the one you ended up with. However, you have to cut things away to know where that line is on the spectrum.
This exercise was pretty merciless. There may be something you cut out that you really liked, maybe something that shouldn’t have been cut. That’s fine, and you are now free to put it back. But I do caution against adding something back just because you’re emotionally tied to it, even though it doesn’t add value.
This exercise of judging the necessity of every word is a back and forth, a weighing of what’s important and what’s not, and it will take some practice. Let yourself practice. Imagine that your words and sentences are on sticky notes, rather than carved in stone. Move them around, and when you can, peel some off the page and let them flutter to the ground.
By Madeleine Mozley