Arrive Late, Leave Early

Arrive late, leave early. There’s an intriguing bit of writing advice! What does it mean, and does it work?

Answers: Get to the interesting stuff quickly, don’t take longer than necessary, and yes, it works.

You should note, though, that “arrive late, leave early” overturns conventional writing advice, which suggests starting with a generalization and gradually arriving at your point. Here, for example, is how one first-year English textbook suggests that you begin an essay:

For a typical college freshman, entering college is fun and an exciting time of life.

The paragraph in this textbook example wanders around a bit (soda, pizza, music, playing cards) before it gets to the point: the writer is a twenty-nine-year-old freshman, and his experience has been different.

Hooey.

My advice: Arrive late, leave early. Here’s how I would start the same paper:

Typical? Hardly. Although I’ve been on the campus for almost three months now, I have yet to join the groups of students relaxing over cards and Cokes in the cafeteria. As a twenty-nine year old freshman, I’m having a very different college experience. For me, “relaxing” means bouncing my infant son on my knee while I struggle to read an English or psychology textbook. “Free time” means working the night shift at a discount store. Because I’m a husband and a father, college is serious business, leaving little time for recreation or making new friends.

Arrive late, leave early. Avoid preliminaries and introductions. See if you can combine action with atmosphere. If your character is closing a wet umbrella, you don’t need to write a sentence about the weather. Effective details – a pair of tickets to a Broadway show, snowflakes on your eyelashes, sand squishing between your toes – can set a scene in just a few words.

Good writing moves. Tell stories instead of philosophizing. Show rather than tell.

It’s fun to see how much you can pack into a sentence or a paragraph. Try it!

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