“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.”
Make “every word tell” — this wonderful nugget of advice is from the classic handbook, The Elements of Style, a writing guide always worth revisiting. I came across this passage in a recent New York Times article called “Keep It Short” by Daniel Heitman, a journalist and author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House. In the article, Daniel notes that E.B. White, widely admired as an essayist, achieved his spare but sprightly prose only by vigorously paring his words: “Although White’s gift for saying much in a few words looked effortless, he often achieved his pith by distilling one draft after another to its elegant essence.”
Over the years, inspired by E.B. White and others, Daniel has honed his own revising skills and offered some helpful tips:
Each word must pull its weight: “Refining a draft is a process of elimination that, like any contest advancing the survival of the fittest, tends to dramatize what’s left standing when the competition is complete. Like passengers in a lifeboat, all the words in a concise text must pull their own weight. That’s why good poetry, which places a premium on brevity, stakes such a claim on a reader’s attention.”
Cut with care: “I frequently hear champions of brevity advising writers to cut their word counts by scratching all the adjectives or adverbs.” But, Daniel warns, the goal of brevity isn’t to slice a certain type of word out of your text, but to be sure that each word you use really matters.
Strike a balance: “…brevity, whatever its virtues, must be balanced against a multitude of other needs in composition. If extreme brevity were the only goal of writing, after all, we wouldn’t have Moby-Dick or Anna Karenina. Not every piece of writing requires a Spartan word limit.”
Wise words for us all as we craft our prose and write on!