Turn Strunk & White upside down
Three new ways to approach classic writing wisdom
After 50 years on writers’ bookshelves, The Elements of Style — aka “Strunk and White” — still offers perhaps the best collection of techniques for compressing copy:
- Use the active voice.
- Put statements in positive form.
- Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
- Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
- Keep related words together.
- In summaries, keep to one tense.
And, most famously:
- Omit needless words.
So how can you omit needless words?
Few people dare edit Strunk and White. Fortunately for us, The Wall Street Journal’s Barry Newman is among them.
“Omit needless words,” he says, quoting the masters.
But if you can omit them, it goes without saying that they’re needless, Newman says. So drop that redundant word to make it:
But if you’re a writer, clearly “words” are self-evident, Newman argues. So how about …
2. Use Stephen King’s formula.
In On Writing, prolific novelist Stephen King shares his formula for cutting copy:
“In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High — 1966, this would’ve been — I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length.
Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.
“Even today, I will aim for a second-draft length of thirty-six hundred words if the draft of a novel runs three hundred and fifty thousand words, I’ll try my damndest to produce a second draft of no more than three hundred and fifteen thousand … three hundred, if possible. Usually it is possible. What the Formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree.”
Is your story too long? Collapse it the Stephen King way.
3. Perform an act of commission.
When I conduct writing workshops at Tellabs, I always learn as much as I teach.
One day, watching the Tellabs team edit a press release during a practice session, I was surprised to see George Stenitzer, vice president of corporate communications, wielding a highlighter instead of a pencil. Instead of cutting words, phrases and ideas he wanted to remove from the piece, George was highlighting information he wanted to keep.
Forget Strunk and White. Instead of omitting needless words, why not identify needed words?
It’s a great technique, because it focuses you on finding what you need instead of what you want to scrap. Here’s why George does it:
- “I use a highlighter to pluck a simple message from a sea of complexity.”
- “When we edit a technical paper, a highlighter helps capture its essence and translate it from technical jargon into plain language.”
- “Less is more. A highlighter is a quicker path to less.”
Having stolen George’s technique, I’ve come to believe that highlighting needed words is more effective than omitting needless words. It gets you there faster.
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