Content Under Pressure
Writing Lean in 2017
Many of us make resolutions to lose weight, exercise more frequently or improve our eating habits. This year, I challenge you to improve your writing habits and learn to write lean.
Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” That holds true for many of us, especially if we aren’t sure what we truly want to communicate. We just muck about the topic, typing continuously, hoping we’ll figure it out.
Test Your Writing and Editing Skills
The most important element to tight writing is knowing exactly what you want to say. If you haven’t sufficiently thought through your concept, you are setting yourself up for an afternoon of editing. Get your thinking done before you start writing.
Once you’ve accomplished that, here are some exercises that will strengthen your writing and editing skills.
Timed writes. Give yourself 15 minutes to write on a particular topic, fiction or nonfiction. You will quickly find that knowing you have a limited window to write provides a natural structure to your piece. You will produce a succinct introduction, make points quickly and cleanly, and move smoothly toward a strong conclusion. Pick a topic you know, such as why you like thunderstorms or you hate being late, or use a writing prompt to add a degree of difficulty and stimulate creativity. With practice, this skill will be evident in all your writing.
One-page writes. Similarly, challenge yourself to communicate all you need to convey on a single page. I recently had a two-and-a-half page missive that needed to be slashed by 60 percent. When I went to edit, I was surprised how much extraneous detail I had included —things I thought were important but added nothing for the reader. I’ve found that entire paragraphs can be replaced by a single sentence.
Clauses and modifiers. Look carefully at clauses and modifiers. Often, these weaken sentences while adding bulk. Are they really necessary? See if restructuring the sentence makes it clearer and the clause can be dropped. Adopt similar skepticism when it comes to modifiers. Adjectives and adverbs are wonderful, but unless one is reading for pleasure they are often just more verbiage to plow through. Be kind and compassionate; don’t make readers work harder than they have to.
Widows and orphans. In typesetting, “widows” and “orphans” are snippets of sentences at the beginning or end of a paragraph that are left dangling at the top or bottom of a column, separated from the rest of the paragraph. (Orphans are left behind, while widows must go on alone.) They are to be avoided at all costs. Once you start in on the task, they are surprisingly easy to cut. Take that concept further. If a magazine piece runs two to three paragraphs long, the editor will look for trims in the last 10 to 15 paragraphs, tightening the piece word by word, then line by line to find the space for the article’s conclusion. Do this with your own work. If you are a language junkie, this becomes as addicting a challenge as Sudoku.
Search and destroy. I once edited a magazine piece in which the writer had overused the words “help” and “work.” I highlighted them all and sent the piece back, forcing the author to rewrite (and consequently shorten) each sentence. Search for words you commonly use to determine if you are overusing them. They are often red flags, and signal where your article can be strengthened and tightened.
Track changes. Finally, practice editing your work in “track changes” mode. Having a visual record of how much you’ve been able to cut reinforces the concept that nearly every piece can stand some trimming. Once you’ve internalized that, you can successfully edit without it.
These are just a few tips to teach yourself to write lean. I welcome your feedback in the comments section to learn your best practices. And, of course, if you want to edit this post down, be my guest.
Susan Kostal is a legal affairs PR, marketing and business development consultant based in San Francisco. She writes the "Content Under Pressure" column for Attorney at Work, and has covered legal affairs as a journalist for nearly three decades. You can follow her on Twitter @skostal and view more of her content at www.susankostal.com.
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