People who know me would describe me as a talker. I can log two minutes on my husband’s voice mail just to ask him to pick up milk. What can I say? I like back stories and context. I’m wordy. Yet, my writer friends would hesitate to describe my writing as “wordy.” I’m known as the one who uses sparse description and concise transitions. After years of crafting newspaper and magazine articles that needed to fit a set word count, the to-the-point journalist in me is hard to shake. Until recently, I didn’t realize other writers admire the ability to write lean. So I thought I would share how I’ve fine-tuned that skill over my career.
First, I subscribe to Stephen King’s advice in his book, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” to use “a few well-chosen details” when describing character, setting and the like. King recommends focusing on the first details that come to mind when you visualize something you’re trying to describe. It’s spot-on advice. When Jennifer Niven described a high school guidance counselor in “All the Bright Places” as having “a smile too big for her face,” I didn’t need to know anything else about the woman to picture her. When I’m writing description in a first draft, I include as many details about the person, place or thing as I think are compelling. But then I pare that list down to the one or two most relatable, most memorable details for the final story.
If you’re struggling to do this with your own writing, try this challenge. When you walk into a new place or meet someone for the first time, make a mental note of anything interesting that catches your eye. Then before you go to bed that night, write down what you remember and turn the paper over. Then, the next night, write down what you still remember. Compare it to what you wrote the night before. You’ll probably find that your second list is shorter than your first, but there will be a few details that made both lists. Start with those.
I also believe that less is more when it comes to writing.
- While writing a first draft, I allow myself to write what I want. Then I scrutinize each sentence during the revision process, evaluating each word to see whether it’s necessary.
- I write what I want during a first draft. Then I evaluate each word’s necessity during revision.
Thirty words just became 17, yet the sentences convey the same meaning. There is always a way to make a sentence shorter – either by rewriting it or omitting needless and repetitive words.
With that said, one of the best parts about being a writer is getting to play with words and language. So I’m not saying you should slash your manuscript simply to shorten it. I do believe, however, in making every word count by making deliberate and specific word choices. When writers do that well, their voices are heard. But more important, their readers get to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks and more fully experience the story being shared.