In that time people have paid me to write—among other things—newspaper and magazine articles, business proposals, marketing plans, video scripts, print ads, radio ads, TV ads, websites, press releases, and pithy tomes to help new brides choose the right silverware pattern to suit their busy lifestyle.
No matter what I am writing, the goal is the same: to get an idea from my brain into another person’s brain using the fewest number of words possible.
Sometimes the need for brevity is dictated by time or space. A thirty-second TV ad or a quarter page magazine ad can only contain so many words. Sometimes it is dictated by a short attention span—mine or my audience’s.
Regardless of the reason, achieving brevity is never easy. It takes work. Here’s three things I’ve learned over the course of the past thirty years that help me when I write. They might help you, too.
- The best writing isn’t written, it’s re-written. No matter how many times I sit down to write, I always use too many words at first. So I have to take some out. When I do, I realize they weren’t needed to begin with. One of my first editors when I was an aspiring journalist handed me back a story I had written and said “I love it. Now give it back to me with 50% fewer words, but don’t lose the detail.” The result was a much better story and a front-page placement.
- “Be prepared to murder your babies.” This odd bit of advice comes from a college journalism instructor whose name I have long since forgotten but whose words have stuck with me all these years. “Murder your babies” means that, as you re-read your writing and come across a passage that you feel is extremely well crafted and elegantly detailed, you should probably eliminate it. Chances are it’s extraneous to the flow of the piece or somewhat off topic, or both. As eloquent as it may be, give it the axe.
- Stop when it is finished. Sometimes the hardest thing to do when you’re writing something is to know when you’ve said enough. The temptation is to give one more example to support your thesis. One more anecdote. One more citation. Once you’ve made your point, stop it already.
I was going to write more, but I won’t. I’ll stop now.
© 2013 Tom McCall