Avoid Overwriting Your Script

“I’m sorry to have written such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one”. This quote has been attributed variously to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Blaise Pascal. Many quotes are erroneously attributed, but in this case there is evidence that Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln all used the quote or versions of it.

The famous book Elements Of Style by Strunk and White advises writers to go through their work and remove any word which can be removed without altering the meaning of the text. Sydney Smith, founder of The Edinburgh Review in the 19th Century advised; “In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.”

It may be impractical to follow this advice exactly, but the spirit of the idea is good advice. The writing process can gain from the creative throwing down of a stream of conciousness onto paper, but then the writer has to put on the hat of the editor and ruthlessly remove unnecessary words. It’s not easy and successful writers have access to professional editors who will do this for them.

For the beginner the challenge is to be ruthless with your work. It’s a skill and practice will make you a better writer.

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6 Comments

Filed under Writing

6 responses to “Avoid Overwriting Your Script

  1. Very true, for both fiction and nonfiction.

  2. milieunet

    Agree with you

  3. I earn all my living from writing.

    My clients tend to frame their briefings in terms of subject matter and required page or word count. I don’t deliberately pad my copy, but I don’t go back through it paring it down. That would be doubly counter-productive – it would take more time and I would end up short of words/pages.

    As a reader I’m not at all convinced that pared-down is the way to go. Surely Dickens and his ilk could lose 30%-40% of their words and still be both coherent and compelling. Saul Bellow’s “Augie March” that I just (re)read is wantonly verbose and all the more entertaining for it.

    It’s like music. If a writer (or musician) “swings and sings” they can take their time – I may not even want them to stop. If they’re dull, even something brief is too long.

    • James Coakes

      Thanks Stuart, that’s a very thought provoking post. I think that where talent exists there’s less need for editing and paring down. I agree with your Dickens reference, there’s a lyrical quality to great writing. As with all advice I should be careful to avoid absolutes, which isn’t so easy in short posts.

      • As I was writing I was getting flashes of your output, such as I’ve seen in various places. Rather, I was getting flashes of my impressions of your output, and what I call of my responses. I don’t know whether I smiled out loud or just inwardly. Either way, I smiled with a sense of pleasure.

  4. jackiebarrie

    “In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.” If I obey that instruction, we’re left with: “In, as general, run pen every word have; you no what it give style.” Interesting exercise!

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