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Wilbers: Slice and dice your writing to make every word work hard

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • August 5, 2012 - 7:23 PM

Nearly every book on style offers the same advice: Make every word count. Eliminate wordiness. Concise writing is the foundation of good writing.

"Omit needless words," William Strunk and E.B. White advise in "The Elements of Style."

"2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%," Stephen King writes in "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft."

Even yours truly identifies 14 patterns of wordiness in his book on style. (Google "wilbers wordiness" for a set of free exercises illustrating these patterns.)

In the 21 years I've been writing this column, nothing has improved my writing more than -- week after week, month after month -- eliminating unnecessary words to stay within my 500-word limit. I know concise writing has more power and emphasis than wordy writing -- I teach that concept in my writing seminars -- but it's a lesson I relearn with every column I write. Sometimes I delete just a word here or there. (The first version of that sentence was, "Sometimes I delete just a word here or a word there.") Sometimes I cut an entire paragraph from my draft, and even if it's a good paragraph, what remains is tighter and stronger.

And then, invariably, as I check my word count, I find I've cut too much. Typically my first draft comes in around 600 words, and then as I begin cutting, condensing and compressing I end up with around 450 words. It takes some fiddling to hit 500 words on the nose. (The first version of that sentence read, "It takes some fiddling to hit 500 words pretty much on the nose, give or take 5 or 10 words.")

What helps me bring it home is to go to a scrap file of deletions I've kept along the way. My file allows me to reconsider my cuts, evaluate their merit and reinsert the text that seems to contribute most significantly to the overall piece. In contrast to recreating from memory something I've deleted and then decided to use, working through my file is systematic, quick and efficient.

There's another benefit to keeping a scrap file. Often in the process of drafting and revising, I'll cut a sentence or phrase I plan to use elsewhere. Sometimes I'll forget I'm "carrying" that text and then I'll lose it when I cut something else on top of it. Keeping a scrap pile allows me to safely park my text until I find a home for it.

And now, as usual, having written a draft for this column that was too long, and then having condensed it, I find I'm 60 words short. Here's a paragraph I parked in my scrap file:

"To identify the nonfunctioning elements, I typically look in two areas: wordy expressions such as until such time as for until or during the course of for during, and unnecessary content that comes from telling the reader something the reader would know without my saying it."

Let's see. That was originally my fourth paragraph. As soon as I reinsert it, I'll be finished.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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