On Writing Concisely

Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You begins with two simple sentences:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

If you read the book through, you’ll know that these first three words sum up the entire novel. The second sentence sums up the theme. This is exemplary writing, and it continues throughout the story.

Writing concisely is a gift and a skill. As with most writing skills, writers can become more adept using these three steps:

  1. Observe good writing (read).
  2. Practice your own writing.
  3. Get feedback.

I’ve suggested a book for observation, and getting feedback seems fairly straightforward. What about that practice?

Here’s a good way to practice writing concisely. Take 15 minutes or so, and write as much as you can. Writing cohesive thoughts is optional; just go for word count. Make a point not to reword any sentences, even if they’re hurting your brain.

Once the 15 minutes is over, take that text of yours and see how many words you can cut out while still retaining the original meaning. Make it a game. If, by the end of this exercise, it seems you can’t delete one more word without compromising the meaning of your writing, give yourself a high score!

This exercise is ideal because you have little time to become emotionally attached to your words. When you’ve spent substantial time carving your sentences, it’s harder to follow Strunk and White’s advice to omit needless words. Yet, even though it’s painful, playing this game with treasured writing can be very beneficial. Just make sure you have back-up copies.


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