Monday, July 03, 2006

On tightening your writing

I just wrote this on another site, and thought I'd put it here too.

The question is: How do writers tighten their writing? Make it more compelling, more interesting? Spill the blood on the page?

IMHO, there are two parts to this problem: language and story. If you tighten the language, you have a much better shot at telling a clear story. The clearer your story, the more powerful it will be.

Happily, tightening language is a skill that can be learned. Read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style - and internalize it. This will not be hard to do; it's 85 pages long.

Here are my rules of thumb, taken straight from Elements:

  • Prune unnecessary words. Don't use 10 words where 5 suffice.
  • Eliminate redundancy.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Be specific. Use concrete language.
  • Be clear. Know what you want to say, and say that.
  • Put yourself in the background. Limit self-conscious writing. It's not about you; it's about the story.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally to you.
  • Use nouns and verbs that really work for you.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not use qualifiers.
  • Trust your reader. Do not overexplain.
  • Let your words speak for themselves. Limit exclamation points, italics, and other trickery. (I violate this one all the time.)
  • Avoid fancy words. Prefer the standard to the offbeat. (In other words, don't be quirky just to be quirky. Make the quirkiness serve the story. Eileen is a GREAT example of this.)

When you first start writing this way, every cut is painful and you may start worrying what you're doing to your voice.But do it enough, do it until it's second nature, and you will learn what your rhythm is and what words not to cut. You'll end up nurturing and protecting your voice - and improving every story you write.

Now, how does tightening the language help you tighten the story? By helping you find the story.

When I write a first draft, I wander all over the page - but by the second draft, I'm tossing out the stuff that obscures the story. It's like an archeological dig - you may have to overwrite, at first, to get the layers that you'll sift through to find your story. It's OK. It's a process. Go with it.

But whatever you do, figure out what your story is about, and then write that. Get rid of anything that gets in the way: a funny line, a charming aside, that scene that showcases your brilliance. Out! Out! You can always save it in an Ideas folder and shoehorn it in a later story - but for now, focus! Kill those darlings.

The whole subject is dear to my heart. As a young and deeply stupid reporter, working at an absolutely tiny newspaper with no editorial support, I memorized Elements and made myself look critically at every single thing I wrote.

It paid off. It's still paying off.

Doing this is a lot like running: when you start, it hurts for the first two weeks and you wonder why the hell you're doing it. By the time a month goes past, you realize it's gotten a lot easier. Three months go past and you realize you're way faster than you were when you started. And then it becomes habit. From hell to habit in three short months. Of hell.

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