Authors: Roy Peter Clark
• Cut any passage that does not support your focus.
• Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes, and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
• Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader.
• Don't invite others to cut. You know the work better. Mark optional trims. Then decide whether they should become actual cuts.
Always leave time for revision, but if pressed, shoot for a draft and a half. That means cutting phrases, words, even syllables in a hurry. The paradigm for such word editing is the work of William Zinsser. In the second chapter of
On Writing Well,
he demonstrates how he cut the clutter from final drafts of his own book. "Although they look like a first draft, they had already been rewritten and retyped ... four or five times. With each rewrite I t ry to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that is not doing useful work."
In his draft, Zinsser writes of the struggling reader: "My sympathies are entirely with him. He's not so dumb. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer of the article has not been careful enough to keep him on the proper path." That passage seems lean enough, so it's instructive to watch the author cut the fat. In his revision "entirely" gets the knife. So does "He's not so dumb." So does "of the article." And so does "proper." (I confess that I would keep "proper path," just for the alliteration. But "path" contains the meaning of "proper.")
The revised passage: "My sympathies are with him. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path." Twenty-seven words outwork the original thirty-six. Targets for cuts include:
• Adverbs that intensify rather than modify: just,
certainly, entirely, extremely, completely, exactly.
• Prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious:
in the story, in the article, in the movie, in the city.
• Phrases that grow on verbs:
seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to.
• Abstract nouns that hide active verbs:
a sultry, humid afternoon.
The previous draft of this essay contained 850 words (see below). This version contains 678, a savings of 20 percent.
1. Compare and contrast my longer draft with my shorter one. Which revisions make the essay better? Have I cut something you would have retained? State your case for keeping it.
2. Get a copy of
On Writing Well.
Study the cuts Zinsser makes on pages 10 and 11. See if any patterns emerge. Hint: notice what he does with adverbs.
3. Watch a DVD version of a movie, and pay attention to the feature called
Discuss with friends the director's decisions. Why was a particular scene left on the cutting room floor?
4. Now review your own work. Cut without mercy. Begin with big cuts, then small ones. Count how many words you've saved. Calculate the percentage of the whole. Can you cut 15 percent?
5. Flip open to a page of this book at random. Search for clutter. Cut words that do no work.
This tool celebrates simplicity, but a clever writer can make the simple complex — and to good effect. This requires a literary technique called
a hopeless word that describes the process by which an author takes the familiar and makes it strange. Film directors create this effect with super close-ups and with shots from severe or distorting angles. More difficult to achieve on the page, this effect can dazzle the reader as does E. B. White's description of a humid day in Florida:
On many days, the dampness of the air pervades all life, all living. Matches refuse to strike. The towel, hung to dry, grows wetter by the hour. The newspaper, with its headlines about integration, wilts in your hand and falls limply into the coffee and the egg. Envelopes seal themselves. Postage stamps mate with one another as shamelessly as grasshoppers, (from "The Ring of Time")
What could be more familiar than a mustache on a teacher's face, but not this mustache, as described by Roald Dahl in his childhood memoir
A truly terrifying sight, a thick orange hedge that sprouted and flourished between his nose and his upper lip and ran clear across his face from the middle of one cheek to the middle of the other. ... [It] was curled most splendidly upwards all the way along as though it had had a permanent wave put into it or possibly curling tongs heated in the mornings over a tiny flame. ... The only other way he could have achieved this curling effect, we boys decided, was by prolonged upward brushing with a hard toothbrush in front of the looking-glass every morning.
Both White and Dahl take the common — the humid day and the mustache — and, through the filter of their prose styles, force us to see it in a new way.
More often, the writer must find a way to simplify prose in service to the reader. For balance, call the strategy
taking the strange or opaque or complex and, through the power of explanation, making it comprehensible, even familiar.
Too often, writers render complicated ideas with complicated prose, producing sentences such as this one, from an editorial about state government:
To avert the all too common enactment of requirements without regard for their local cost and tax impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that the state should partially reimburse local government for some state imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee compensation, working conditions and pensions.
The density of this passage has two possible explanations: The writer is writing, not for a general audience, but for a specialized one, legal experts already familiar with the issues. Or, the writer thinks that form should follow function, that complicated ideas should be communicated in complicated prose.
He needs the advice of writing coach Donald Murray, who argues that the reader benefits from shorter words and phrases, and simpler sentences, at the points of greatest complexity. What would happen if readers encountered this translation of the editorial?
The state of New York often passes laws telling local governments what to do. These laws have a name. They are called "state mandates." On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state. But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn't consider the cost to local government, or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea. The state should pay back local governments for some of these so-called mandates.
The differences in these passages are worth measuring. The first one takes six and a half lines of text. The revision requires an additional half line. But consider this: The original writer has room for fifty-eight words in six and a half lines, while I get eighty-one words in seven lines, including fifty-nine one-syllable words. His six and a half lines give him room for only one sentence. I fit eight sentences into seven lines. My words and sentences are shorter. The passage is clearer. I use this strategy to fulfill a mission: to make the strange workings of government transparent to the average citizen, to make the strange familiar.
George Orwell reminds us to avoid long words where short ones "will do," a preference that exalts short Saxon words over longer ones of Greek and Latin origin, words that entered the language after the Norman Conquest in 1066. According to such a standard,
I am often stunned by the power that authors generate with words of a single syllable, as in this passage from Amy Tan:
The mother accepted this and closed her eyes. The sword came down and sliced back and forth, up and down,
whish! whish! whish!
And the mother screamed and shouted, cried out in terror
and pain. But when she opened her eyes, she saw no blood, no shredded flesh.
The girl said, "Do you see now?" (from
The Joy Luck Club)