When we teach students to write, we rarely teach them how to delete.
But it is arguably one of the most important skills a writer has. My students are learning this this week. They've been assigned to write a 600-word column, and many of them are struggling. They've written drafts that are 750 words, 800 words, 1,000 words. Now, how to cut it down to the required length?
The advice that follows comes from both me and Jen Moritz, the best editor I know. She's such a good editor, I married her. She also deals with my writing regularly, so she knows from wordy (also pray for her).
Kill your babies.
First off: There is nothing in your column that is sacred.
"But I can't cut that!!"
Really? Are you sure? Why not? Specifically, can't you take out that paragraph, that sentence, those words?
Everything in a column should serve a purpose. Everything should relate to the story, opinion, or perspective you're presenting. If it doesn't, it's gone.
Limit your background to what is absolutely essential. I don't need to read the entire backstory of a team's season or a player's success. Give me what's relevant to your point.
Did you back door your way into your column? Trim the lede. Get right to the point, and once you’ve sold your point, move on.
Do you have any sentences or paragraphs exist only to set up information? Toss them. "Joe Smith played well for much of last season, hitting .334 with 13 home runs" becomes "Joe Smith hit .334 with 13 home runs last season."
Delete “that” when you don’t really need it. (You usually don’t.)
Use contractions. You should be anyway.
Think about your phrasing: “the year’s best movies” is shorter (and stronger) than “the best movies of the year.”
Get rid of unnecessary words: “December” is better writing than “the month of December,” “17-21” is better writing than “between the ages of 17 and 21.”
For ranges, there’s no AP rule for hyphens vs. “through” — use hyphens.
Pull out “It’s my opinion,” “I think,” “I feel like” … it’s a column, so they already know that.
Cut adverbs when they aren’t really necessary. (They usually aren’t really necessary.) Adjectives, too.
Tighten up your sentences in general. If there’s a shorter way to say the same thing, snip snip.
Same goes for words: “use” is shorter than “utilize,” “among” is shorter than “amongst.” They’re also better writing.
Use active voice instead of passive voice. It takes up less space.
Avoid the words “in order to.” You can always just say “to.”
A final note: This is the hardest thing to do in writing. It's easy to take a 1,200-word column and make it 700. The real challenge is making that same column 600. But doing so makes it better. It will make it tighter and more focused.
As William Zinsser wrote in the best book ever on writing, "On Writing Well":
I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color. I like to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another. I like to rephrase a drab sentence to give it a more pleasing rhythm or a more graceful musical line. With every small refinement I feel that I'm coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.”