Attaining Brevity

October 10, 2017 § 30 Comments


I’m all about brevity, and not just for Brevity. I’m ruthless with my editing clients’ work. In the big picture, asking if a scene is needed or a subplot is serving the story as a whole. Line by line, chopping words and phrases:

Driving in a car

That night I fell asleep in my bed and dreamed

He got out of his car, walked across the lot, and through the front door of the apartment building, where he pressed the elevator button for the tenth floor.

Not all editors have this near-ridiculous focus on using the fewest possible words to tell the story. And I have to be careful to curb this instinct when working with a writer whose natural style is wordier, or who’s writing in a more-descriptive cultural tradition. But usually, cutting every possible extraneous word benefits an essay or a book. Sharpens the focus. Keeps the reader on what matters instead of losing them in a thicket of less-important language.

The subject of vigorous trimming came up a few weeks ago when I was teaching. I advised a group of memoirists to print their current draft, edit it on paper as much as possible, including scissoring pages apart and moving scenes or paragraphs if needed. Then retype the entire draft into a new document, “Not cutting and pasting, and not adding the edits into the previous document. Retyping.”

I hadn’t realized this was, shall we say, unusual until I caught the looks of horror. Retype an entire manuscript? Every word? When there’s a perfectly good Save As New File option?

But retyping lights up a new part of the brain. Reading words on a paper page and copying them is different than agonizing in one’s head and putting the results on screen. Physically snipping a manuscript into scenes points out repetition in a way that encountering the same scenes while scrolling doesn’t. Retype the entire thing and you’ll know what words to leave out because you won’t want to type them. If you feel resistance at the keyboard to a paragraph or a moment, ask if the book really needs it. Retyping instead of copy-pasting also re-immerses the writer in the flow of the story–sometimes new memories or scenes show up as you go. And it doesn’t take nearly as long as writing the story the first time. For me, the wordcount-per-hour is about four times faster, and a solid two hours of retyping feels like an honest day’s work.

A student asked, “When did you start doing that?”

At first, I didn’t understand the question. Wasn’t vicious trimming part of everyone’s process? (Nope.) I thought back to seventh grade. When I first started exploring the themes of being misunderstood by parents and peers and the loneliness of the true artist writing terrible middle-school poetry. My grandmother gave me a pretty hardback journal, dark blue with a unicorn–of course it was a unicorn!–stamped in silver. I didn’t want to waste a page. Only final drafts belonged in this book, because only finished pieces deserved a hard cover, thought tween-me. Every poem was first written on looseleaf paper, kept in a manila folder in my Trapper Keeper, because manila felt more grown-up than snapping them into the three-ring section. Every poem was rewritten five, six, ten times, each time removing any word that could be left out. I don’t know why I thought stripping away the excess made better poems, but I was sure it did.

Seventh-grade me was right. Strip away the excess to reveal the heart of the work. Yes, there are voices and styles that require more words–make sure that’s the strongest choice, and even then ask of every word, do you belong here? Are you doing a job no other word can do? Are you earning your place in this line?

Physically rewriting is just enough effort to truly question every line. To find the brevity in your natural voice. When you’re ready, print your draft. Mark it up. Cut it apart. And then retype–your fingers will tell you what belongs.

_________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her latest webinar, Write Better With Social Media, is available through her website.

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§ 30 Responses to Attaining Brevity

  • Hack-n-slash revision! YES! Retype! YES! You are so smart.

  • Reblogged this on Indiscretion and commented:
    Traditional journalism schools taught this lesson. Cantankerous editors at scruffy newspapers reinforced this.

  • Peg Conway says:

    Great idea! THanks.

  • gmabrown says:

    yes, my daily work, along with that sense I may be losing something important, the taste of my world, scents, and odors, the thickness and damp air as I approach a difficult decision. I know I know, but its hard to know isn’t it. Not just letting go, but to locate the sacred places to leave it be.

  • Sharon Silver says:

    Yes.

  • Abigail Thomas says:

    loved this. short and sweet.

    PLEASE NOTE: my new email is abbythomas1941@gmail.com

    verizon (may they burn in hell) no longer will forward to gmail

    On Tue, Oct 10, 2017 at 7:38 AM, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:

    > Allison K Williams posted: “I’m all about brevity, and not just for > Brevity. I’m ruthless with my editing clients’ work. In the big picture, > asking if a scene is needed or a subplot is serving the story as a whole. > Line by line, chopping words and phrases: Driving in a car That ” >

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Abby, I think you’ll have to re-sign up with the new email for the blog to come to your inbox, and I don’t think you want your email in the public comments? Let me know if I can help!

  • You should see me now…it may take me four times as long to write, but I am so much the better writer for it. I am grateful to you…especially for the small things, like “driving the car”( head slap) ….:)

  • Joanne says:

    As always, brilliant.

  • sarahchurchbaldwin@gmail.com says:

    Right?

    >

  • In many ways you are correct. I think of my clients: their difficulties are exacerbated by language-learning issues and so highlight strengths and weaknesses we all have. Not one path works for all of them … I suspect not one path would work for all writers. Yet I agree that re-examining, sometimes in the least ‘intuitive’ way, can be just jarring enough to shake off excess verbiage. (Respectfully signed, Tending-To-Verbose Me)

  • Brandon Neifert says:

    While I respect your art form, why does everything have to be brief? Had Dickens written with every adjective phrase and noun clause removed, we wouldn’t be looking at a master of diction. I’m glad you say what you really mean, as I have the opposite opinion. I think good diction flows with passivity, as it’s the best kind of diction for communicating hard to grasp concepts. Not to mention, it’s also beautiful in its own right.

    I suppose it’s editors who are barring me from publication, as I have to disagree completely with your writing philosophy. Doing it for your company is one thing, but requiring all writers to write that way is creating a constrained diction where every piece of writing sounds like every other piece of writing.

    So, no, brevity is not the “Art of writing.” Brevity is one way of writing, which you should really look at Hemingway as an example of that. But, look at Miss Austen, who by no means wrote in brief sentences. I think this prescription is a blight on the language, in that it’s needless, and only caters to an already misinformed audience.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Good point! I’m definitely not arguing that everything should be brief–while Brevity is all about flash nonfiction, there are far more venues for longer work. And of course not all voices are brief in word count, which is why I wrote:

      “Not all editors have this near-ridiculous focus on using the fewest possible words to tell the story. And I have to be careful to curb this instinct when working with a writer whose natural style is wordier, or who’s writing in a more-descriptive cultural tradition.”

      And

      “Yes, there are voices and styles that require more words–make sure that’s the strongest choice”

      I don’t claim, though, that this is the “art of writing” or that all people should write all pieces in this way. This is one tool. Nor does Brevity (or any other literary journal) require any writer to write in any particular way, other than stated word counts, within which writers can be as wordy as they like.

      I’m familiar with Dickens, Hemingway and Austen 🙂 And they are all great writers in their own voices! There are plenty of modern writers with wordier styles, too–I just reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. But even then, a more lush style of prose doesn’t contain *unnecessary* words. There are still just enough words to make the point and fill the voice. Where writers err is in keeping in extra words that aren’t needed for the voice or the piece.

      It’s also important for all of us writing now to remember that a wordy voice is much harder to pull off in 2017 than it was a hundred or two hundred years ago, because it’s no longer the norm but an outlier, so it will require a higher level of skill.

      As an editor, the vast majority of excess writing I see is not a conscious choice but a bad habit, and I’m not comparing it to some universal standard of length but to what the writer is trying to say that can be put more strongly and essentially.

      • Brandon Neifert says:

        Well, with me it’s a conscious choice. I just feel I have some bad luck with editing departments because I get rejected all the time, and the only reason I feel I do is my prose. Which, I consciously write in a way that is more classical in style—primaily because it’s what I like to read.

        Thank you for your kind response.

  • Brevity is excellent but only if you can still get what you are intending to say across to your readers. Perhaps this explains the popularity of flash fiction both to the reader and the writer who feels daunted at the prospect of a novel.

  • Brevity is t̶h̶e̶ ̶s̶o̶u̶l̶ ̶o̶f̶ wit.

  • Kim Thompsen says:

    I love this way of clearing the clutter!

  • Kim Thompsen says:

    I start my posts in a notebook. Most of it stays there.

  • tampamamba says:

    Still thinking.

  • Ellie Holmes says:

    Love this! I had a college professor who had a knack for slashing copy, and I produced for an anchor who did the same. It really helps to be able to do it in traditional writing, as well as TV writing.

  • jenniewriter says:

    I am a wordy writer, but I love this! I am going to try your technique. Also, I love how you first arrived at it with the unicorn journal!

  • […] at University of Pittsburgh by that name). For a look at the editing process check out this recent guest post on “Attaining Brevity” by Allison K. Williams. She recommends an old-school process of printing out your draft and […]

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