A beginning writer new to the art of rewriting, or call it the craft of condensing, starts by pruning adverbs and prepositional phrases and graduates to vaporizing whole paragraphs or pages at a time. The truly accomplished writer does more with less from the outset.
Writing is just thinking on paper, preferably thinking and feeling in harmony, but worthy thoughts, like worthy sentences, require distillation. The mad thrill of tapping a stream of words springing forth from deep within — does anyone else remember the very young Ethan Hawke spouting poetry in “Dead Poets’ Society”? — is in almost all cases but a first step, if the goal is putting words down that might have a chance of lasting.
It’s not about counting words, it’s about daring to choose. Any major writing project is the sum total of a vast network of interlocking choices. Often it’s agonizing to make a choice between, say, two different examples to give, or two different metaphors, so the writer with a short attention span or limited commitment to excellence opts to include both options.
Good intentions have no place in creating writing that can last. The writer’s task is not to show the reader all the pretty good ideas that went into the choices underlying the work, but to hide as many of those as possible and leave the inspiration, the message, the takeaway. This requires intense focus.
A writer friend told me a story recently about meeting a pleasant enough woman in her forties, and having a discussion that went pretty much like this:
Pleasant enough woman: “I’m a writer, too.”
My friend: “Oh, great. What do you write?”
Pleasant enough woman: “I write paranormal romance. But I’m also writing a mystery. My father’s friend just told me an amazing story about World War II and I’m also working on an epic about that. I’m a screenwriter. Pitching lots of different things around town. And I act also.”
Being a writer, a good writer, means choosing. I recently came across the following profile at Twitter: “Magician, Musician, Percussionist, Writer, Movie Fan, Analyst, Geek, Coder, SQL & Crystal Reporter, Music Judge, Mets Fan, Mets Hater. I talk to most animals.”
Compare that to this for Stephen King: “Author.”
King knows how to make choices. He weeds out the less important. “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit,” King told us in On Writing. “Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do — not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit.”
Making tough choices often takes time. Writers in a hurry mistake moving the fingers for productivity. They lose sight of the task at hand. We can all do a better job of making our writing succinct and clutter free. Try these tips:
LISTEN CLOSELY: Read your own work aloud to yourself, more than once, and listen closely. You can feel small shifts in your own attention, your own interest, in the words you’ve put together. If your own interest ebbs slightly, safe bet that you’re looking at words that can be trimmed or reworked.
TRUST IN GHOSTS: If you cut something, and it needed to be in the text, it will haunt you. It will float through the corridors of your consciousness, asking to be brought back from the world of the departed. So don’t fret too much about cutting, cutting and cutting some more — but keep an eye out for your friends the ghosts.
SEEK TO TAKE PART IN ACTUAL CONVERSATIONS: I’ve noticed a decline in the art of conversation. Maybe because we are more used to connecting digitally most of the time, when we are sitting together there is more of a tendency to blurt out anything and everything. One topic leads to another and another, with more emphasis on “getting” each other, feeling a same-page connection, then moving on, and less on actually pursuing a theme, trading ideas. There is a torrent of words. There is more interrupting of one another. Trends can’t be reversed, but look for ways to tune into the voice of that person who says little but makes his or her words count. Hope, indeed, that you are that person.
PRINT OUT: The problem with editing in the computer is one redo leads to another redo and another, into the dozens or hundreds. Better to wait until the time is right, let a piece of writing settle, then edit it on the printout — with full attention. That’s your best shot at condensing in a way that will stick.
Originally posted at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods writers’ retreat center homepage