Sometimes the secret to great creative work isn’t what you produce, but what you throw away or leave out. Think about cropping a photo. The role of white space in a clean design. Skylights or extra windows letting in more light.
And while it may seem counter-intuitive, similar strategies play a role in writing.
So if you’re struggling to get a concept onto the page in just the right way, the problem might not be what you need to add. Something already there may be holding you back. When you’re stuck or pushing your word limit, it may be time to go to the dark side of editing and look for stuff to cut. These “subtractive” strategies can add a lot to your copy.
Kill your darlings
“Darlings” are bits of writing you really love and just have to include somewhere. The witty phrase that makes you sound so clever. A conversation where your favorite character shines. That snappy smackdown of the cause or competitor you loathe most. Even experienced pros fall prey to them.
The trouble with darlings, unlike truly great ideas, is they just don’t seem to fit anywhere. They make you crazy as you bend over backward trying to include them where they don’t belong.
Signs you might be grappling with a darling include:
- The idea came to you early in the writing process, before you thought the whole piece through.
- Your darling doesn’t drive the reader toward your conclusion or call to action.
- No one cares about your darling but you. (Sorry.)
“Killing” your darlings is the only cure. Can’t bear to hit the delete key? Cut and paste your darling into another document and save it for later. More likely you’ll forget about it, but you’ll get over it. It’s hard to kill darlings because we looooove them so. But the needs of effective words outweigh those of words that are just showing off.
Omit needless words
Rule 17 from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is perhaps the most famous maxim of that famous writer’s guide. And while E. B. White admitted “the huge task will never be accomplished,” it’s still the key to clear and concise copy.
In fact, it’s so tough to beat Strunk himself on this one that I won’t even try. Here’s rule 17 verbatim, which White called “fifty-nine words that could change the world”:
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.
Strunk goes on to slim down numerous examples, including cutting a paragraph down to a sentence with half the words. His biggest pet peeve is “the fact that”, which “should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.”
The thumb test
This simple trick ties in with rule 17, though it applies equally to words, sentences, and even paragraphs. Not sure you need something? Try covering it with your thumb (or a sheet of paper, or whatever). If the remaining copy is just as good or better without the words you covered, they don’t belong there.
Like athletes, writers often need to “warm up.” So it’s a good practice to try the thumb test on the first few paragraphs of any given piece. Don’t be surprised if paragraph 4 turns out to be a much better introduction — it happens all the time.
Copy that fails the thumb test might work somewhere else in your piece, especially if it features relevant details. Just be willing to let it go if it isn’t necessary.
Breaking up isn’t hard to do
Jane Austen could get away with writing sentences 109 words long. She wasn’t competing with YouTube videos of adorable puppies. Your job is a bit tougher.
Shorter sentences make copy easier to read. Gurus differ, but holding most sentences to 20 words or less is a common guideline for marketing copy. Break longer sentences into smaller pieces if you can.
Just as designers use fonts and spacing, writers use punctuation, subheadings, sections, and chapters to shape the reader’s experience. In some cases, bullet lists can also be more effective than sentences or paragraphs packed with information. Tools that break copy up give readers visual “breathing room,” making them more likely to read to the end.
Deleting words can feel demoralizing, especially if you’ve worked hard to create them. But don’t let that stand in the way of writing great copy. Your draft is like the first chisel blows on a marble sculpture. It may look promising, but there’s still work to do. Editing is the process of smoothing and finishing the rough edges. Apply these rules mercilessly and take pride in the masterpiece that remains.