Writing Tips: Why Shorter is Better

high voltage hazardShorter is better. I know, that’s NOT what she said, but it’s true in writing.

If it’s shorter, it will read faster and be clearer to the reader.

Now, that’s not to say that you should deliver less information, just that you should present all your information more concisely.

Making a piece shorter in this way actually takes more effort than leaving it long, which is why Mark Train once famously quipped “I had to write a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.” But if you have time, go short.

So how do you make it shorter? First you need to make it longer. If you’re writing a book, you need to take every idea, every waking minute, all your physical strength, the last drop of blood in your heart and the sum total of your memories—then project it all with the force of a fire-hose into your work. Keep pouring it out until your creation reaches that critical mass can hold itself together with its own gravity.

Only when you’ve built it up as large as possible can you cut it down to size. When you’re ready for this stage, start with a broad axe and whack off any unrelated aspects or ideas that don’t sync with the rest. Sometimes this can be painful, because you will need to chop some things that are good and beautiful in their own way just because they don’t line up with the completed whole. Don’t worry: you can (and should) save all the scraps, and they might become your next supplement or sequel. When I was done with Mad Science Institute, I had enough ideas left over for about six more novels.

But however many scraps you end up with, you have to be ready to put them aside for now, because you’re not done with your original project yet. You still have more trimming to do.

Now it’s time to drop the broad axe and grab the scalpel. Every beginning and intermediate writer I’ve ever known would be better off cutting words even if they have room to spare.

If it doesn’t comment on the character or set the mood, then cut it. Does your reader need to know what color the car is? Maybe, maybe not. You want your writing to be as lean and as fast as Bruce Lee on five cups of coffee.

Look for repetitive sentences or unnecessary statements. Every single word should justify itself. Can you graft those two sentences to say the same thing with less? Can you replace a phrase with something just as colorful but more succinct?

Instead of saying “the bright blue car glittered in the sun,” pick either “bright” or “glittered.” You don’t need both. Make it your goal to remove one word from each sentence: you’ll find that you can’t do it everywhere, but if you can average one word per sentence then you’ll save hundreds or thousands of words over the course of a chapter or a book.

Can you cut too much? Absolutely. Keep in mind that the goal is to say more with less, not to say less with less. Kurt Vonnegut said that every sentence needs to drive the plot or show a character. Use that as your guide.

What’s your take?

Do you think I’m correct, or just crazy? Ever read a book that is great but still longer than it needs to be? Or do you think a lean manuscript loses too much flavor? Leave your comments here to tell me what you think.

About Sechin Tower

Sechin Tower is a teacher, game developer, and author of MAD SCIENCE INSTITUTE, a novel of creatures, calamities, and college matriculation. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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One Response to Writing Tips: Why Shorter is Better

  1. Lugh says:

    One of the more fascinating things is to switch between a tight, modern novel (like Mad Science Institute) and an early Victorian novel (Dumas, Sabatini, or even Dickens). The older novels have entire chapters that are nonessential fluff. The quantity of irrelevant description is boggling.

    I have a dream project of modernizing Count of Monte Cristo. Put the prisoner in Gitmo, have the treasure be an account in the Caymans, etc. Re-tell the story not only in a modern setting, but in a more modern style. Unfortunately, it is a project that I know I don’t yet have the chops to pull off.

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