Years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, at my first writers’ conference, with the Alabama Writer’s Conclave, I got to listen to a professional editor talk about the craft of writing. I sure was excited to hear what she had to say.
Later, when I had the opportunity to talk to her personally, I ask her what the one piece of advice was that she would give to beginning writers. I don’t even remember her name now, but I sure took her advice to heart. She said:
Write what you are going to write, get it all in there, don’t worry about a thing, just write. Then, after you have it all down, and the story is written , go back through and cut the word count in half.
Over the years, I have always remembered her words and I often take them to heart.
Being realistic though, I found that cutting everything in half didn’t quite work for me; it is a little extreme for my basic writing style, and more often than not, I regretted cutting too much, rather than the other way around.
However, in the process of learning to be succinct, which was really what her advice was about, I also learned that we are all different in the way we write and we have to find what works for us. What she was advising was really a two-step writing process.
- The first step is to get the story down and do it without worrying about anything but the story. Whether it’s fiction, technical writing, journalistic reporting, a blog post, or whatever, the first draft is not the time to worry about grammar, spelling, or beautiful words, or even being succinct. The first draft is when you get your story down. In the first phase of the writing, don’t think about anything but the story. Just write.
- The second step comes after you have your story down. It is then that you go back and start polishing your prose, correcting your grammar and spelling, and cutting that word count down.
This editor’s advice was to cut the word count in half. Although you would think it was in how I approached the task early on, this was not a mathematical exercise in controlling your word count, it was to learn to say what needs to be said without bogging your story down with extra clutter. From a writing mechanics perspective, too many extra words will slow the pace of your action, and if you are writing fiction, for example, you want to keep the story moving and the pages turning, the faster the better.
Early on, everything I wrote, I really did work to cut the word count in half between the first and the last draft. And I counted the words. With time, I realized that strategy probably did not work precisely for me; also, since I was so focused on that word count, I frequently ended up cutting things that I later regretted and would end up putting them back in. That is not that a big deal though since I save every draft by a different draft number (i.e., draft1.docx, draft2.docx, etc.), if I change my mind in the process, I just pull the information between the various draft iterations.
It is another issue, and another post for another day if you are writing to a specific word count, which is common in journalism, technical writing, and professional publications. Nonetheless, I have held to the practice of writing first, editing later, and trying not to waste a whole lot of words.
There is no doubt, that advice has served me well over my years of writing, and editing too.
This post was updated on May 31, 2017.