Perfecting Your Writing Through the Art of Reduction

What you take out is more important than what you leave in

Thomas Plummer
Apr 12, 2020 · 6 min read
By Rapid Eye on Stock (image licensed by author)

Good writing is often more about what you take out than leave in

Good writing is often more about what you take out than what you leave in, and experienced writers learn through the years reduction is the path to perfection in what they create.

Alberto Giacometti is a renowned artist from the twentieth century known for his sculpture, drawings and design, but his most famous works were his sculptures of women. He would spend years working on the same piece slowly molding down his work believing the more he reduced and subtracted, the more that was revealed through his art.

New writers cling to the opposite view, believing more is better and most new writers hate to edit, meaning remove, any of what they write. Once written, every word becomes a vital part of the work and too many newly developing writers will never edit what it took so long to create.

Here are a few thoughts on the art of reduction

What is the main theme or point I am trying to make with what I am writing? We often start a piece based upon a quick idea then shift our path while we are into the process. Most of the nonfiction you write should be based upon a single idea or concept, and as you begin the editing process, ask yourself if you are staying true to that single point?

Creating a first draft is like packing for an extended trip. You lay out all possible clothing you might need on the bed to make sure every travel contingency is considered. Then the real packing begins as you reduce this pile down to the suitcase you travel with and the needs of the trip.

First drafts are where many of your key ideas will form. You just let it flow and surprise yourself with a magic sentence or paragraph that makes you think you might really have the talent to be a writer.

The problem is that this spurt of brilliance might have little to do with the key concept of the piece and might be a distraction that takes me away from what you are trying to get me, as the reader, to see. We often fall in love with our brief touches of brilliance, but does this little bit of magic take me away from you or makes me fall in love with what you wrote?

Good editing is done in layers. During the first go through, we edit for the general feel of the piece asking ourselves if we are true to our concept or expected outcome? But as we repeat the edit process, we come down to a word by word search for tightness. For example, it is a rare piece of writing that couldn’t eliminate a large number of the word “that.”

The word by word stage is where much of your talent develops over time when you learn to find just the right word that conveys the emotion or feel of what you are writing. New writers often go too far trying to impress us with their college placement test vocabulary, but the professional writer learns to get it done with the simplest word that conveys the power of the message.

This is one of the hardest challenges in writing as you begin. “I wrote it, I love it, I have sort of edited it, and I have to publish it now,” is the writer’s mindset, but all writing is improved if it ages for at least twenty-four hours.

The suggestion here is to power through a first draft then walk away. The next day then do the first broad edit looking for flow of the piece and if it is true to the expected outcome. Then, and only then, should you start the reduction process.

Reduction means you are slowly stripping away the unneeded, the redundant, and the words written that have no effect on the reader’s understanding of what you are trying to convey. Reduction means you continually tighten until have a piece where every word is necessary and moves the reader ahead.

Clichés are the kiss of death and at the end of the day, actions speak louder than words, but then again, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

The worst thing about using clichés is that they automatically negate most of the good in the piece. Several badly placed clichés can destroy an otherwise well written piece covering up all of the magic you created, but again, you can’t please everyone and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Inexperienced writers almost always put too many concepts into a single piece. For example, you might be writing a travel article about a small town on the Alaska coast you visited, but instead of thinking of the piece as a possible series, most new writers try to cram everything they saw and did into one article.

When you do this, you mention everything, but detail nothing. These articles can’t breathe because they are carrying a load that is simply beyond the concept.

Instead of describing the entire visit, take us through the people and the history, then maybe a hike or experience you had there and follow up with the cuisine and cafes you visited. Separately these all make great articles but stuffed into one box you can’t detail any of them.

This works for me and might work for you. Despite what is written in the endless stream of articles on writing and editing, there is no one right way to get it done.

I like to do my final edit by dropping the article into a different font and blowing up the size. This forces me to see it differently and changes how my mind’s eye views it. I also like to fix the stupid errors I make in typing paragraph by paragraph as I write the first draft.

Many writing teachers say not to edit as you write but it works for me and might work for you. Find your own way to get the cleanest copy you can and ignore the set rules. There is no one way, just your way if it works for you

No matter what I have written, nor how many times I have edited it, the piece gets one last look before it is launched, and it is surprising I still catch errors at this last step.

Often, we make glitches when transferring the article from our computer to whatever medium we are choosing to publish with that day. Headlines lose a letter, formatting disappears, or the article just gets glitched in the transfer process.

I find dropping my writing into the transfer window, such as New Story, and editing a final time there gives me that last chance to make sure it as clean as I can. Yes, it is a change of font and size, and that too helps you get one last tight look.

The art of reduction is the process of creating clean, tight writing that moves the reader along with your magic words. In the writing world, less is more and tight is better than excessive.

Look at a few of your older pieces and see if you can strip them down by cutting a third of the words. Most writers are surprised when trying this because what you thought was good is now a much quicker and inspiring read.

Remember, there is perfection in the art of reduction.

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Thomas Plummer

Written by

A simple life dedicated to leaving the world a little better than I found it. Long career in the business of fitness, writer of books, speaker, personal coach.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

Thomas Plummer

Written by

A simple life dedicated to leaving the world a little better than I found it. Long career in the business of fitness, writer of books, speaker, personal coach.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

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