Tightening Up Writing

Gene Kim recently asked me about techniques to tighten up writing as he works on his novel. I thought I'd share my recommendation.

This technique works best if you start with a paper printout of your writing, although you can accomplish something similar by using highlighting in an editor.

This is a three pass technique.
  1. First Pass: Read through your writing, and identify half of your paragraphs to delete. You can do this by rating each paragraph on a scale of 1 to 3, or simply by crossing out unnecessary paragraphs. In some cases, you'll want to keep an entire paragraph. In other cases, you'll want to delete an entire paragraph. But more likely is that you'll delete most of a paragraph, but keep a sentence or two.
  2. Second Pass: Refactor your hodge-podge of writing into new paragraphs. Don't focus on final polish, because you still have more deleting to do. But end this phase with paragraphs of writing, with dead paragraphs removed.
  3. Third Pass: Identify sentences to remove. Your goal is to try to remove at least one in three or one in four sentences. Some words or phrases might migrate to other sentences, but you're shooting to eliminate as much fluff as possible.
  4. Do a final editing pass over your writing, cleaning up any awkward transitions or awkward language.
The key concepts and best writing remain distilled down into their essence, while the weak, unnecessary, and redundant gets eliminated. At a minimum, you'll get a 30% reduction in length, while more aggressive cutting will net you a 50 to 60% reduction. The result is tighter, more value-packed prose.
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