The Single Best Rule to Quickly Improve Your Writing
As writers working to perfect our craft, sometimes I think half the books ever written are about how to write better. With such an ocean of ink-slinger advice to swim through, how do we know where to start, where to focus, where we’ll find the most cleavage…ah…I mean leverage?
Clearly the answer to this question is debatable, but for this writer, one simple rule applied with pit-bull tenacity has done more to heal my prose of a plethora, a deluge, a superfluity of literary abominations than any other, and probably all others combined. If you can remember only one point of writer’s craft (one is often my limit), then this is the one.
The Rule: Omit Needless Words
When I first wrote this post, I had the heading, then the rule — “Omit Needless Words” — followed by “The End.” Seemed in perfect keeping with the spirit of the post, but I soon realized a bit of explanation was needed. Hell, even Strunk and White, from whom this rule originates in their seminal work, The Elements of Style, wrote more on the topic. So who am I to think I can escape for less?
Enter Strunk and White
Let’s start with what the masters said about the topic:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. – The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
In reading the powerful words of Strunk and White, I am heartened by realizing no writer — no, not even Shakespeare — ever gets it perfect, as I see opportunities to further tighten the vary paragraph they used to explain the concept of Omit Needless Words.
With all due respect, here’s how I might crank the wrench one more turn:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines, a machine no unnecessary parts. A writer need not make all sentences short, avoid all detail, or treat subjects in outline only, but every word must tell. – Craig Allan Teich
I accomplished no earth-shattering economy, but did manage to shorten the paragraph from 63 words to 53…a savings of 10 words, or 16%. Not too shabby, and personally, I think the paragraph reads just that much stronger in my revised version. Applied to a book of 100,000 words, an author would eliminate 16,000 unnecessary words, and their writing would improve considerably. If we think of a book like an athlete, imagine how much better an athlete weighing 200 lbs. becomes if he sheds 32 lbs of unneeded bodyfat. I can tell you from personal experience how extraordinary the improvement is when you eliminate 30 lbs of dead weight. The same will happen to your writing when you Omit Needless Words. Good luck and happy writing.