Monday, December 6, 2010

Slash Your Way to Success

Learning to write concisely is an art. It takes a keen eye, an open mind, and a sharp knife. But once you trim the excess, the clear-cut message you pen will evolve into the concise, easy-to-read style of writing appreciated by both publishers and readers.

I learned the importance of making every word count while writing articles for a newspaper. The message from my editor echoed loud and clear, "You cut the words or I will."

At first, it was difficult to slash my way through my carefully constructed words, but as I progressed, I became skilled at eliminating them with the ease of a hired assassin.

Just last week, those editing skills came to my aid when I entered the Folgers Coffee essay contest. The assignment: write a 200-word essay on what is the best part of wakin' up at home for the holidays with Folgers Coffee.

Words flowed as my idea took shape. Then I hit Word Count. Oops! I geared down. My second draft hit the mark - 212 words. That's when I really went to work.

It took several hours, and many rewrites to perfect my entry. Conveying a compelling story in 200 words is not an easy task. But, finally it was done. I had 200 words on the nose.

Then disaster! After I copy-pasted my entry onto the Folgers Coffee entry blank, I gave it a final read and noticed my last two words had disappeared. After several tries, with no success, I realized their computerized entry form counted my essay differently. According to them I had 202 words.

Now, the cuts bled as I hacked away at the meat of my story. Dispirited, I quit working on it for the day. The break helped, and first thing the next morning I noticed a simple phrase I could change. The magic number 198 finally appeared when I hit Word Count.

I hit SEND. Then I completed two more entries - each with 198 words.

Most writing books have a chapter on the importance of writing concisely, and there are dozens of Internet articles on the subject. Each offers constructive advice on ways you can strengthen your writing, eliminate redundancies, and deliver compact, interesting material.

I recommend following their advice, but meanwhile, don't forget one of the simplest tools for learning to write concisely is to write under the restriction of a word-count. Hone your knife and give it a try.


Jennifer Rova said...

I, too, entered the Folgers contest with 4 entries. I was so conscientious of the word count; 200 words is a sparse number to tell a story. Recently I wrote a story about dogs and let it sit for a week. It was up to 750. It was amazing the number of words I could cut when I did a rewrite. Why didn’t I see those necessary changes the first time!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Well, I didn't enter the Folgers contest, but I understand the work involved in cutting, cutting, cutting, from projects I have written. That revision process is one of the parts of writing that I love--the reworking and reshaping to make it work for what I need. An informative and useful post for writers. Thanks. And, best of luck to Mary Jane and Jennifer on their contest entries!

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I think that the revision process is when the real work begins. I always have to remind myself to allow for plenty of revision time when facing a deadline--something I didn't always do in my student days!