“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.”
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But slicing through your prose to eliminate any excess verbiage can be a tough, even painful, process. Back before he became a huge success as a writer, Stephen King received what proved to be an incredibly simple and useful formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10% (see Rewrite Formula). Stephen takes his rewriting seriously, and he seems to stick to this strategy religiously.
When revising, you might find Stephen’s approach helpful. Here’s some more advice from A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart:
Be ruthless: Read through your draft attentively. If cutting a word has little or no impact on your meaning, then red pencil it. Be sure that every word works hard for its place in your prose.
Be specific: Make your modifiers vivid and memorable. Saying that a chair is “worn” sounds a bit worn out, doesn’t it? Come up with a description that really draws a picture. Dump any verb or noun modifiers that are redundant: “slowly ambled,” for example. Let’s face it, if you’re ambling, you’re already going slowly. Say it once, not twice.
Trim your sentences: If you’ve got a Proustian style, then you may be able to write paragraph-long sentences layered with meaning like an onion . But if you’re going for drama and clarity, then don’t overload your reader’s mind or patience: make sure each sentence contains only one or two major ideas.
Keep tenses simple: Basic past and present tenses generally work best in saying what you mean clearly and concisely. Getting too creative with your tenses can slow down you narrative drive and confuse the reader.
And of course, as all of us know, all these rules of the road have been ignored or bent to marvelous effect by many a wonderful writer. Still, they’re worth pondering as we go on our merry way. Write on.