#17: Murder Your Darlings – Be Succinct

Going on and on and on and on and on kills moods, destroys meanings, invades the brain like a bad Rick Roll and irritates like smelly people queuing overnight for Hello Kitty toys from McDonalds (I kid you not, this happened in Singapore).

There, I had to get it out of my system.

Long, rambling sentences get my goat. I argghhh against writers do not know how to trim, nip and tuck for our reading ease.

William Strunk said it best:

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.

From Strunk & White

Why Write Succinctly?

I turn to Jakob Nielsen (the usability guru) for advice on these sorts of things.

He says…

  • Be succinct: write no more than 50% of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication
  • Write for scannability: don’t require users to read long continuous blocks of text
  • Use hypertext to split up long information into multiple pages

From Useit.com

So if you’ve written long, long blocks of text, it’s time to highlight those words and Ctrl+X them out of existence.

Where do I Begin?

Here’s what I’ve learnt as a writer (and being edited) and from my constant companion: Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (2006 edition). For this part, I lean heavily on “Tool 10: Cut Big, Then Small”.

  1. Let go of your ego: it’s time for judgement and you need to kill off your beloved quotes, metaphors and other bits of virtual ink
  2. Focus on the big parts:
    1. Remove chunks that do not support your main idea
    2. Remove weak quotes, phrases and passages
    3. Break up dense paragraphs into shorter paragraphs
    4. Identify distinct sections and give them sub-headings
    5. Turn paragraph of a list of things into bulleted lists
  3. Zoom in:
    1. Remove phrases that intensify or repeat. (e.g. intensifying adverbs: just, certainly; restatements: a sultry, humid afternoon)
    2. Remove abstract nouns that hide active verbs (e.g. consideration becomes considers)
    3. Restate passive voice into active voice where possible
    4. Be cautious of bland adjectives (e.g. interesting, beautiful, lovely)

James Boyk’s Improving your writing through editing showcases the entire process where a draft is edited into its final form. It’s worth a looksee at how it works.

Remember: Make each word work, harden your heart and murder your darlings.


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Credits: Featured image from www.oocities.org/teenychrischer

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