The case for ruthless editing

Less is more, especially if a hard word count forces a writer to pare down prose and fortify the language.

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Hard rules make for better writing.

The sonnet has a strict structure, and some of the world’s greatest poems are sonnets. A haiku form is even stricter, 17 syllables in three lines (five, seven, five). The best of that genre convey simple beauty.

Hard word counts force a writer to edit ruthlessly; there is room for only one main point.

Consider load-bearing walls versus cosmetic walls. The former are essential to the structure. Knocking out the latter will not jeopardize the house.

Ruthless editing also can lead to honest evaluation. Summarizing your work, as in a pitch letter or synopsis, imposes a reality check on your writing.

Editing ruthlessly benefits the reader, too, by limiting the number of ideas to process and stating them concisely.

Here are some tips for editing ruthlessly:

Cut riskily.

Set a goal for yourself, if your editor hasn’t already, to cut 10 percent from your draft, but don’t stop there. Choose a paragraph, and cut out one-fourth—or take a risk, and cut it by half. You’ll be surprised at how often the passage still works.

Sometimes it won’t work; that’s why it’s a risk. If it doesn’t, restore the cut passage from your original draft.

Here’s why such ruthless cutting works:

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