July 25

Editing cruelly exposes your worst fears

Two of my favorite author/editors have the same rule, and I am beginning to take it to heart. As I mentioned in my review of Howard Becker's Writing for Social Scientists, he asks as he edits, “Does this need to be here? If not, I'm taking it out.”


William Strunk (of the quintessential Elements of Style by Strunk and White) says it more concisely: “Omit needless words!” In fact, E.B. White, who wrote the subsequent editions, told this story of being a student in Professor Strunk's classroom:

In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself – a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!

This image of a dotty, old professor both amuses and strikes fear into me. Strunk obviously slips just a bit into the levity of the conundrum: if you use fewer words, but your class is longer than you need or your journal article should be 25 pages, you may end up humorously repeating yourself.

The fear enters because pretentious phrases, filler clauses, and redundantly large words are a writer's magical smoke and mirrors. Look over here, marvel at my loftiness! Let me dazzle you with my 90 minutes of lecture and my 60-page article!

If, however, I follow Strunk's command to use fewer words and more concise sentence constructions, then… people will know exactly what I'm saying.

I have know precisely what I want to say, and it must be worth saying. Intimidating.

How to battle the fear?

Edit through the fear. Pull out your rough draft (the one filled with pretentious phrases, filler clauses, and redundantly large words), take a deep breath, and read the first sentence. Evaluate every word. Does it need to be there? If not,delete it. Ruthlessly re-read the sentence, and evaluate every word again. After a second pruning, go back to make sure your meaning remains intact.

Then, continue to the second sentence. Prune, and prune again. Re-word to ensure the sentence's coherence.

When you have finished the paragraph, go back. Does every sentence need to be here? Can you prune two sentences and combine them without losing meaning?

Take a stiff drink if you have to, and press on through the entire paper. Do not relent.

I estimate that most writers will cut anywhere from 10-30% of their words. Ouch.

How to recover after you've omitted so much?

Go back to see what you have left. It may feel as though you cut off a limb and that your paper no longer has as much movement or strength as it once did.

Now, however, because you have trimmed the unnecessary excess, your paper has room to grow. Return to theorizing, thinking, and researching. You may have more to say, now that you have room to say it, more original, creative, worthwhile things to say.

Or, it's just shorter, and, honestly, that's fine. Communicate your good ideas in clear, concise, streamlined prose, and your readers will be grateful, I assure you.


You may also like

Which "Publishing Path" is right for your book?

There are FOUR different publishing paths for the modern author. Ready to discover which one's right for YOUR book?