Dec 09 2015
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Tips for beginning writers: Word economy, or using five words instead of seven

Highlighters are your best friends when combing through your work to identify words you can cut or replace to tighten your writing. Photo by Flickr user photosteve101 (Creative Commons license).

Highlighters are your best friends when combing through your work to identify words you can cut or replace to tighten your writing. Photo by Flickr user photosteve101 (Creative Commons license).

One of the earliest pieces of advice a writing instructor gave me concerned my love of adjectives and adverbs.

Pare this down a little, she said.

I’m being descriptive! I defended myself. Writers should describe, right? We should paint a scene, give as many details as possible, right?

Wrong, she said. Use five words instead of seven.

OK, so we should absolutely strive to paint a scene and offer details in our writing. But there’s more to it than that. My instructor was using fewer words to get me to realize that if my details are quality details, I won’t need as many of them to paint that scene.

The term she used was word economy, or the idea of being economical with our words.

Look at the differences in the following sentence:

     The boy took the green ball out of the girl’s hands and with all of his strength, threw it away down the hill.

     The boy snatched the ball from the girl and hurled it down the hill.

Here’s a breakdown of how I created word economy in my revision of the original sentence:

  • I cut the phrase “the girl’s hands.” What else would she be holding the ball with if not her hands?
  • I cut superfluous words like “out of” (“from” will do), and shortened “away down” to simply “down.”
  • I cut the adjective “green.” Yes, description is nice. But what does the fact of the ball’s greenness do to bring meaning to this sentence? Out of the context of a specific scene, the focus of the sentence is that the boy took something from the girl. His act of bullying or tormenting or stealing, and the reader’s understanding of it, are not contingent upon the color of the ball.
  • I chose better verbs. This tip is by far the most important. Taking something and snatching something are two different things, as are throwing a ball and hurling a ball. Both “snatch” and “hurl” are verbs that work harder than “took” and “threw” to convey the nature of the boy’s action. “Hurled” negates the need for the phrase “with all of his strength” (and if I were to keep that phrase, I would cut “of” so it read “all his strength”).

The thing about practicing word economy is that if you can begin to think like this, you’ll start to see opportunities for tightening your writing everywhere. For example, after completing this bulleted list, I thought, why not change “the ball from the girl” to “the girl’s ball”?

See? Use three words instead of five!

A very practical and hands-on exercise to begin to train yourself to use only the best words is to print/write out a copy of your work and highlight all the verbs. Are they the strongest they can be? Would using a stronger verb make redundant any other information in a given sentence, the way using “hurled” makes the phrase “with all of his strength” unnecessary? Once you’ve highlighted and replaced your verbs, cross out any of those redundant or now-superfluous words or phrases.

Next, try using a different colored highlighter to locate adverbs and prepositions, words that show direction. Did we need “away down the hill”? No; “down the hill” is fine, so “away” can be cut.

Finally, identify details that might not be adding anything to your story (the same instructor who told me to use five words instead of seven called this exercise “trimming the fat”). Details are great, IF they’re working as hard as they can to convey your intended meaning. The greenness of the ball in my original sentence would only be important if, say, we learned earlier in the story that the boy’s green ball had gone missing. Then the meaning the reader gleans from the sentence might change from “The boy took the girl’s ball” to “Perhaps the girl took the boy’s ball first, and he’s taking it back.” The detail of the ball’s greenness, then, would be working hard to add to the story’s meaning.

One final consideration: I read something on the the New York Times blog years ago that has stayed with me, so I looked it up again so I could link to it here: Americans encounter about 100,000 words a day, on average. How much of it are we reading deeply? How much are we skimming? A major skimming technique is to skip over conjunctions, articles, prepositions, and adverbs and focus on key words. If you reduce them in your writing process, you’re doing some of that work for the reader already. Some might argue that leisure reading is a time for slowing down and immersing ourselves into writing, or that reading a good book is a different kind of reading than perusing a newspaper article or blog. I’ll counter that I’d be much happier if the 100,000 words the NYT purports I read each day were all vital, evocative, and carefully chosen.

Integrate these practices into your revision process and you’ll tighten your writing. You’ll say more by saying less, and better engage your readers.

Will you try it?

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Comments on ... Tips for beginning writers: Word economy, or using five words instead of seven

  1. I love this! One of my first writing instructors made me take a red pen to a chapter and remove all the unnesscary words. I never put down that pen. Call me obsessed.?