How to Strengthen Your Writing through Subtraction
By Evan Braun
Before I became a book editor, I went to college with every intention of becoming a journalist. I couldn’t have asked for a better education in writing. If you’re looking for a way to become a more disciplined and effective writer, might I suggest a journalism program? Even if you never become a journalist, the lessons you learn will serve you well.
Which has very little to do with the topic of today’s post, truth be told!
While in class one day, the subject turned to the practice of writing newspaper headlines. A big part of the methodology, not surprisingly, is how to communicate a maximum amount of information through the minimum number of words.
The class opened with an exercise: take a ten-word sentence and reduce it to the shortest and best headline possible. Everyone took a crack at the assignment, and then one by one the class worked its way through the results, analyzing what worked and what didn’t.
I don’t recall that I did particularly well on that first attempt, although I believe I eventually got pretty good at it. Practice makes perfect and all that.
The key is that there’s power in brevity, a subject I’ve written about on this blog many times before. But the topic is so foundational to good writing that I find myself returning to it once every year or two. Really, it’s a subject we as writers need to remind ourselves about on a regular basis, because we can get wrapped up in the beauty of our own words—and that can prevent us from seeing the value in using fewer of them.
Once upon a time, I had the pleasure of performing an editing pass on a young adult mystery novel that really engaged me. It was fun, fast-paced, and kept my attention all the way through, for the most part, even though I’m not part of the target demographic.
The only problem is that it was about ten to fifteen percent too long.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you may remember that I once wrote a post about my personal ten percent rule. Wait, you don’t remember? That’s entirely reasonable. I just checked, and it turns out I wrote that blog post nine years ago.
Nine years! Time flies…
But the concept holds, and it’s still a process I go through with every single first draft I produce (including my blog posts).
Back to my anecdote, though. This mystery novel worked on almost every level, but there were a few things that needed to go. The characters would frequently banter with each other, and sometimes these exchanges went on so long that the reader could lose touch with the underlying plot that was supposed to be running underneath the scene. In this case, the banter was fun, but trimming it down by a few lines helped ensure that it didn’t interfere with the larger goal of further engrossing the reader in the drama at hand.
And especially if you’re writing a mystery novel, you really don’t want to lose any of the tension.
On a similar but related note, almost every conversation began the same way, with the characters greeting each other by all saying “Hi,” and they ended the same way too, with everyone saying “Goodbye.” This is a social nicety which does happen in real life, but in the context of a novel it can start to feel redundant and a bit (here’s a word you never want to be associated with your writing) boring. There are inventive ways to trim these out to maintain a brisker pace; you just have to give it some extra thought.
There was also some repetition, with certain plot points being brought up a few more times than was strictly necessary to keep them front and centre in the reader’s mind. This once again had the effect of dragging down some of the story’s natural momentum.
Finally, some of the descriptions got to be a little verbose. Instead of one really effective adjective per noun, the author sometimes used two or three. And almost every item described had an associated colour—the crimson barn, the turquoise convertible, the grey pavement, the yellow shopping cart, and golden stalks of wheat, the silvery clouds… There’s certainly nothing wrong with using colour (I would encourage it!), but when it becomes too formulaic, then that means it’s drawing attention to itself. You generally don’t want your language to draw attention to itself; you want it to invisibly accentuate the story.
All in all, a few judicious trims here and there managed to keep everything that was really compelling about the book and jettison those things that were standing in the way. The result? A real page-turner!
So when you’re working with an editor and open the file for the first time to encounter a sea of red markings, don’t despair. Like with that headline exercise, you can probably stand to lose a few words from every sentence and ultimately end up with something much better than you would have ever thought possible. Trust the process—and get comfortable with subtraction.
Did you enjoy this post? You may also be interested in Achieving Strong Articulation and Focus and The Ten Percent Rule.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.
Thank you Evan for your useful article about subtraction. I entered my transcript for the 2022 Braun Book Awards. It was 11th out of 15 other transcripts! It has been collecting dust,but you article has encouraged me to dust off my transcript and start subtracting.
Sincerely, Daniel Love