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Posted, Dec. 8, 2004
Updated, Dec. 8, 2004


QuickLink: A74825

Writing Tool #34: Cut Big, Then Small
Precise and concise writing comes from disciplined cutting.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Cut big, then small.

After we overcome writer's block, it is easy to fall in love with our words. That is a good feeling, but it can lead to a bad effect.

When we fall in love with all our quotes, characters, anecdotes, metaphors, it seems impossible to kill any of them. But kill we must. In 1914 British author Arthur Quiller Couch wrote it bluntly: "Murder your darlings."

Such ruthlessness is best applied at the end of the process, where creativity can be moderated by cold-hearted judgment. A fierce discipline must make every word count.

"Vigorous writing is concise," wrote William Strunk when E.B. White was still his student. "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell."

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But how to do that?

Begin by cutting the big stuff. Donald Murray taught me that "brevity comes from selection, not compression." That requires lifting whole parts from the work. When Maxwell Perkins edited Thomas Wolfe, he often confronted manuscripts that could be measured by the pound. The famous editor once advised the famous author: "It does not seem to me that the book is over-written. Whatever comes out of it must come out block by block and not sentence by sentence." One four-page passage about Wolfe's uncle was reduced to six words: "Henry, the oldest, was now 30."

If your goal is to achieve precision and concision, begin by pruning the big limbs. You can shake out the dead leaves later.

  • Cut any passage that does not support the focus of the story.
  • Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes, or scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
  • Cut any passage you have written just to avoid prosecutorial editing.
  • Don't invite editors to cut. You know the story better. Mark "optional trims." Should they become actual cuts?

If you lack time for revision, shoot for a "draft and a half." That means cutting phrases, words, even syllables. The greatest model for such word editing is William Zinsser. Take a look at pages 10-11 of "On Writing Well." On those pages, Zinsser 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 try 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 slice 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 do more work than the original 36.

Here are some targets for cuts. Look for:

  1. Adverbs that intensify rather than modify: just, certainly, entirely, extremely, completely, exactly.
  2. Prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious: in the story, in the article, in the movie, in the city.
  3. Phrases that grow on verbs: seems to, tends to, should have to, tries to.
  4. Abstract nouns that contain active verbs: consideration becomes considers; judgment becomes judges; observation becomes observes.
  5. Restatements: a sultry, humid afternoon.

A previous draft of this essay you're reading contained 850 words. This version contains 699, a savings of 18 percent. That qualifies me -- with a bullet -- for Chip Scanlan's "Ten Percent Club."

Workshop:

  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 10-11. See if any patterns emerge. Hint: notice what he does with adverbs.
  3. The next time you watch a DVD version of a movie, pay attention to the deleted scenes. Discuss with friends the director's decisions. Why was a particular scene left "on the cutting room floor"?
  4. Now review three of your published stories. Cut them without pity. Begin with big cuts, then small ones. Count the words  you've saved. Calculate the percentage of the whole.

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