No writing advice is more hallowed than this edict from William J. Strunk: “Omit needless words!” (If the Strunk name is unfamiliar to you, you need to download a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and keep rereading it until you’ve absorbed every scrap of information. It really is the bible of style.)
“Omit needless words!” is stellar advice for writers, but there’s a wrinkle. How do you know which words are unnecessary? (Back when speed-reading courses were the vogue, readers used to be told to skip over the unimportant words. Really? Don’t you have to read the words in order to figure out which are unimportant?)
And there’s another problem with “Omit needless words.” Strunk and White were talking about style, not content. (The book’s title is The Elements of Style, not The Elements of Writing.) “Too concise” can be as bad as “too wordy.” An interesting vignette, article, story, or book is an intricate dance between omissions and inclusions. Beginning writers tend to load up their writing with unnecessary – even boring – information and then forget to include the good stuff.
Today I’m going to offer you two strategies that will help you think about what to omit and what to include. Think of these as training wheels: Eventually they should become so automatic and instinctive that you can whiz down the street on your own.
1. “Arrive late, leave early”: If you’re telling a story, begin at the most interesting point. “Warm up slowly” is great advice for athletes but disastrous for writers. Start paying attention to the story lines in movies, TV shows, books, and magazines. You’ll soon discover that professional writers like to choose the middle of a story as their starting point. Learn from them.
Similarly, often you can let readers draw their own conclusions about the unfolding events in a story. The ring of a telephone, a smile, a few words – often that’s enough to tell readers that a long-awaited wish has been fulfilled: a new bicycle, a date for the prom, a scholarship. You don’t have to add explanatory dialogue. TV and movie writers use this “leave early” strategy all the time, and you can too.
2. “Give me five”: Write a rough draft. Then start over, writing five more sentences for each one you’ve already written. This activity forces you to dig into an experience, memory, or idea. Often you’ll find yourself uncovering intriguing points you had overlooked in your first draft. Work the best of them into your next draft.
A variation is to talk with a friend or family member who can encourage you to add more details to what you’ve already written. I remember a session with my writing group when a member told us about waking up in the middle of the feeling so sick that she knew her life was in danger. That alone would have made a powerful story, but there was more: She was living by herself in a remote Central American village and had to call a friend with a boat to rescue her.
When the group started asking questions, her story became vivid and real: How frightened she’d been when she woke up, all alone and in great pain. Her frantic search for her shoes and her phone. Her loneliness and fear as she waited on the riverbank for her friend to arrive – and the relief that rushed over her when she saw the light on his boat. Those memories transformed her story into a breathtaking adventure.
Good writers never stop thinking about omissions and inclusions. If you look at the manuscripts of great books from the past, you’ll see that every draft is full of cross-outs and write-ins. Often when a sentence is deleted, another one (or two or three or even more) is added somewhere else. Those classic writers knew what they were doing, and you can learn a lot from them.