Friday, June 10, 2011

The art of less

I've been thinking about this for a while now, especially this week. I've become a Nazi when it comes to over-using words, which is a good thing. Editors are always critiquing writers when it comes to using five words when one will accomplish the same. It's something that I've struggled with for years.

See, I'm in journalism. My editor puts it this way: "Every extra word you use costs you a quarter." Journalism was founded on being succinct and getting straight to the point up front because a lot of early news stories were transmitted by telegraph, which during war could be cut off. Journalists needed to get their stories in as quick as possible or risk not getting the story at all. It's something that we pride ourselves on.

My creative side and my journalistic side have been at odds with each other in the past, but I'm finally coming to a point where I have been paying very close attention to extra words and editing them out. It could have something to do with the fact I write, on average, about a dozen articles per week. So, without further ado, some of the things I look for went needing to pare down writing:

  1. That. It's one of those words where 90 percent of the time, you don't need it. For example: I needed to get to the mall that you took me to last week. You can cut the that completely and have it still make sense. So you should.

  2. Adverbs. Yeah, you've heard this before. Cut them out if they aren't necessary. Nine times out of ten you can replace an adverb (modifier of a verb) by strengthening the verb. There are times when you shouldn't (see: Sarah's awesome blogpost To Adverb, or not to Adverb for times when you should). Personally, this may be the one I struggle with the most. You have to find your own balance of when they should be used and when not to.

  3. Mixing around modifiers. This may get a little technical, but bear with me. Modifiers are words or phrases that describe other words or phrases. They can come before or after what they modify, but generally after needs a preposition. For example: "The keeper of my mother" vs. "My mother's keeper." You dropped two words right there.

    Now you may be asking, "But how does two words make a difference?" Think of it this way: If you cut two words per page in a 300-page manuscript, that's 600 words. See? These things add up. Especially because you can probably cut more than two per page. Come on, you cut two in one sentence. But then again, you are brilliant.

  4. Cut the useless words. There are phrases many people, including me, use that are just plain superfluous. I have a two-page list with three columns of text each of extra words. Take: (adequate) enough, (and) moreover, (angry) clash, (absolutely) complete, (advance) planning, (ask) the question. . . And that's only one-quarter of the As. Oh yes – there are lots of them. But you'll have to catch most of them yourself. So, carefully consider your writing when you're editing. Think, "Does this word add anything to this sentence? If I cut it, would it make sense?" If the answer is yes, get that machete ready.
I would come up with a fifth to have a nice balanced list, but I apparently get stuck at four. *shrug*

So what do you guys think? Was this helpful? Is this something you do? Do you worry about cutting unnecessary words as fervently as I do? I'd love to know!