Thursday, January 15, 2009

Editing for brevity

One of the most important steps in editing anything I've written, is to cut—lots of it. As William Zinsser claims, about 50% of what we write can be eliminated without losing meaning. 

A good example is my last blog post. I usually edit each one several times before posting. This time, I was forced to publish it quickly before my computer shut down. I couldn't get it to save and I didn't want to lose it all. Normally I would have gotten back to it immediately and revised it, but I was late for an appointment that kept me away all day. Eventually, after several cuts, I reduced it by at least half. If you read an early version, I invite you to scroll down to see the latest, more spare one. 

In following the advice I give in my writing classes, I write without concern for the editing steps I know will come later. I take Ann Lamott's advice and let the first draft be the child's draft, writing without censor whatever comes to mind. This allows free thinking and the chance to get the thoughts down before they are lost. When the first draft is written, I take very seriously Zinsser's advise, and incorporating his "four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity." 

Too often we writers will add an adverb that carries the same meaning as the word it modifies. The same is true of adjectives. And far too often I'm guilty of rambling, as I seek the exact idea I wish to convey. As David Belasco said, "If you can't write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don't have a clear idea." 

Thomas Jefferson declared that "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." 

My advice to writers is this: Write freely, using as many words as come to mind to state what you are thinking and feeling. But before publishing them, cut every unnecessary word. When rewriting, remember the words of Hosea Ballou, "Brevity and conciseness are the parents of correction." 

1 comment:

Diana Black said...

Janet, I'm working on a children's picture book (writing & illustrating) and what a task! My first couple of drafts included myriad words and descriptions that were totally unnecessary. Now I've taken TOO much out and am having to salt to taste.

I thought going from songwriting to books would allow me the luxury of room to ruminate. Not so! Even in the chapter book I'm also working on.

Thanks for your reminders and insight.