I’ve taught writing in both public schools and private settings. Years after their last lesson with me, I asked two very bright sisters (with diametric learning styles) what they remembered from their long season with me. Both answered, “Save spit.” Turned out, the pithy injunction had velcroed itself on their brain and conducted the papers they went on to write in college and high school.
Save spit is one of my top writing protocols. I shave as many words as I can and go back and cut some more. Brevity isn’t so much my goal as conciseness. You’re allowed to spin 2000 words on a subject when it begs amplification or because you need to reach every milepost of reasoning for a crisp presentation. Smooshing those thoughts into 1000 cloudy words is not what I mean. What I do mean is simply word economy
in as much as it is possible.
My private students hated
being made to trim the verbiage. My private students hated trimming the verbiage. “The teacher wants 500 words in this essay. How’m I gonna reach that?!” Of course it was the clear thesis, rich elaboration, cogent arguments that would satisfy the length requirement. And when you’re not writing to satisfy a quota is when you’re really writing, isn’t it?
It is not only hard but pretty impossible, actually, to isolate a writing principle. Like anything that breathes, the writing process is an organic movement much like a dance – of the technical and the artistic. So there are plenty of moments when you’ll favor one guiding principle over another. Paint a picture, for instance, is another mantra I write by. Sometimes I choose an extra few words to this end.
I started writing again. vs.
I blew the dust off the pen in my head and picked up my beloved writing again.
Both work. The first sentence not only boasts efficiency but encourages curiosity for what is to come. The second, while blatantly injuring my sacrosanct dictum of word economy, paints a picture and evokes a feeling entirely absent in the other sentence. So writing principles are not commandments. Saving words does not mean being dry. You want flowers, meaning beauty, in your writing – without being flowery.
There was a part in the first installment of my 20 Things I Consider Sacred series I wasn’t crazy about. A reference to marriage:
Boundaries meld to your oneness, while husband and wife remain distinct. It is a mystery.
Ewwwhh! *Finger in throat* Augh! God bless the gracious readers who put up the like on that one. Each time I look back, the more vigorously I shudder at the melding.
It is now:
Boundaries in oneness, a mystery.
I return to old posts with a fresh eye and a pair of shears, and clip what I possibly can. I don’t want clutter in the path of my readers. I try to keep it tight, so that the words hug the intended meaning.
Stephen King in “On Writing” shares a rewrite formula he learned from an editor which transformed his writing: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. “Before the Formula, if I produced a story that was four thousand words or so in first draft, it was apt to be five thousand in second…After the Formula, that changed. Even today I will aim for a second-draft length of thirty-six hundred words if the first draft of a story ran four thousand…If you can’t get out ten percent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”