1. Cut unnecessary words.
Print out your draft and go over it with a pencil. For each word, ask “Can I remove this without losing my intended meaning?” Cross out as many as possible.
This tip comes from Paul Graham, who says “You don’t know what you’re trying to say until you say it in the fewest possible words.”
2. Replace ~unnecessary~ long words with short ones.
|✘ Instead of:||✓ Say:|
|Engages in the utilization of||Uses|
|We will henceforth||We’ll|
Note: When is a long word necessary? When it sounds good and stands in place of several shorter words.
The late David Foster Wallace made excellent word choices. Here’s how he, tongue in cheek, described the chaos of boarding a cruise ship:
“7NC Luxury Cruises always start and finish on a Saturday. Imagine the day after the Berlin Wall came down if everybody in East Germany was plump and comfortable-looking and dressed in Caribbean pastels, and you’ll have a pretty good idea what the Fort Lauderdale airport terminal looks like today. Near the back wall, a number of brisk-looking older ladies in vaguely naval outfits hold up printed signs—HLND, CELEB, CUND, CRN. You’re supposed to find your particular Megaline’s brisk lady and coalesce around her as she herds a growing ectoplasm of Nadirites out to buses that will ferry you to the piers and what you quixotically believe will be immediate and hassle-free boarding. Apparently the airport is just your average sleepy midsize airport six days a week and then every Saturday resembles the fall of Saigon.”
Would this paragraph be better without “coalesce,” “ectoplasm,” “Nadirites,” and “quixotically”? Nope. The words roll around in the mouth, plump and juicy. We savor the sensation, even if we don’t know what they mean.
And, just as important, no long word could be replaced by a single short word. Ectoplasm is the short way to say “the more viscous, clear outer layer of the cytoplasm in amoeboid cells.” There’s no way to replace that word without losing the precise meaning, the delightful squishy “-plasm” sound, and the terseness.
3. Read it out loud.
This forces you to slow down and consider each word individually.
Better yet: Read it to someone, fix it, then have someone else read the final draft out loud to you. (If there’s no one around to read to you, use the screen reader on your phone.)
Legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who worked with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, took it a step further: He and his assistant took turns reading manuscripts aloud forwards, then backwards—from the last word to the first.
That’s one way to catch typos. (Or, “.typos catch to way one That’s” 😛 )
See these articles by Paul Graham:
The David Foster Wallace passage is from “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” published in Harper’s in 1996, and readable here:
I can’t find a source for the Maxwell Perkins anecdote, alas. I know I read it somewhere. (Possibly Stet: An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill, another legendary editor.)
Leave a Reply