In what is perhaps the most revered American guide to writing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the best piece of advice is distilled down to a three-word headline: “Omit Needless Words.”
In a burst of logorrhea, the book explains: “Vigorous writing is concise. 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 every word tell.”
I struggle with this. Everybody does. If I am assigned to write no more than 500 words, I’ll turn in 495, and be very proud of myself. I have no idea why I – or anyone – does this. I suspect that deep down, we all believe that as long as there’s more to read, nobody can tell us how bad our work is. So we put it in. And the next thing. And the next thing. Everybody does this. Particularly lawyers. Especially lawyers.
But really good writing has a tight, focused quality that comes not from putting things in, but taking them out. People who work in other mediums know this, by the way. Miles Davis wrote about the importance of the notes you don’t play. And Andrew Wyeth talked about the importance of what’s not in a painting.
In writing, the cure is fairly simple, although not easy: cut. When you pick up your first draft and are preparing to turn it into your second, begin by going through the whole damn thing and seeing what you can cut. You’ll be amazed. You can almost always lose the first sentence, sometimes the first paragraph, and the thing will be stronger. Keep going.
And you are no longer a writer, or even an editor. You are a wolf coursing through the snowy forest, straight out of Jack London, seeking prey. In this case, that means ideas that are kind of lame, or repetitive. Sentences that sound fake, or don’t move the story forward. Pointless words – “that” is a favorite. And especially, the passive voice. I HATE the passive voice. Hunt them all down, and eat them. They’re killing your writing. They’re making your voice soggy, slow and dull.
If you want to write better, cut, cut, cut.