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.

The case for ruthless editing

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:

  • You’ll find you had more fluff than you thought.
  • You’ll find that the cut part wasn’t necessary.
  • You’ll find that your reader doesn’t need the cut part to figure out what’s happening.

Make less more.

Even if I expanded it to 1,000 or 100,000 words, I couldn’t improve on the classic six-word novel:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

No one is saying that “War and Peace” would be improved if it were edited from 587,287 words to 1,000. Still, a key to ruthless editing is seeing that you have gained more than you’ve lost by cutting words.

Maximize your space.

By limiting your word count, you’ll make each word carry its weight. For example:

The river flowed through the river bed, making a sound like thunder.

Rivers always flow, through river beds, and thunder is always a sound. Changing it to “The river thundered” or “The thundering river” says as much in three words as the original sentence did in 11.

Now I have to find a new, sleek sentence to put them into.

A version of this post first ran on Daily Writing Tips.

(Image via)

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.