British indie author John Lynch generously shares the best writing advice he ever received, learned at the outset of his self-publishing journey: the importance of learning how to write succinctly.
33 years ago I received the best writing lesson I’ve ever been given – and it didn’t cost me a penny. In fact, I made money out of it.
I had sent my first ever magazine article to Good Housekeeping. I can’t remember the exact length – 1,000 words is probably about right – but I do know I’d worked on it and worked on it because everything I read and heard said it had to be as tight as possible – not a single superfluous word – and I was confident I’d achieved that.
It came back with a letter (I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was) that said, “We’d like to publish your article but we need you to shorten it to about 600 words”. I thought, That’s just ridiculous. That article is as short as the great writer that I know I am (and my wife, my mother and both maiden aunts agreed) is capable of making it. This is just another way of turning me down. The letter continued, “I’m attaching your piece; I’ve made some notes on places and ways you could shorten it”. (As I say, I REALLY didn’t know how lucky I was). I looked at her notes. I thought, “Huh. Oh, well. But…I suppose if you…Hmmm.”
When I’d finished looking at them and thinking about them, I had a simpler thought: “Eee, ya bugger” (it’s a Geordie expression. And I’m a Geordie). I sat down at my typewriter and rewrote the article. 600 words. They published it. They even sent me a cheque. That editor had taught me the most important thing I needed to learn and I’d bless her name if I could only remember what it was.
Lesson Learned – And Shared
Come forward 25 years and a friend of mine was struggling with her MSc dissertation. She’d done her research and written her paper but try as she might she couldn’t get it down to the maximum number of words demanded by the university. I offered to help. The offer was made diffidently, because I knew my friend, and she responded as I’d expected. Every word was vital. If I changed a thing it would alter the tone and meaning and that was not to be countenanced.
Eventually she agreed to visit for the weekend, bringing her dissertation as a Word file. We sat side-by-side at my computer and went through it sentence by sentence. With each sentence I rewrote I said, “Does that still say exactly what you want to say?” “Yes,” she said, at first aggressively but calming down as she realised that one could remove all those superfluous words without changing the meaning in the slightest.
At the end of two days, the script was 40% shorter than it had been and now well within the University’s limit. “Brilliant,” she said. “Now I can put some more in.” Yes. Well. How to deal with that? I said, “Umm. The whole thing seems pretty complete to me. Is there actually anything else meaningful to say?”
“No. But they want it longer.”
Maximum Word Count Doesn’t Mean Ideal Word Count
So then I had to explain that maximum word count and desired word count are not the same thing and that you should use the minimum number of words needed to say what you want to say – and then stop.
Brevity does not become easier as the decades roll by – or, at least, not for me. Graham Greene has been one of my favourite authors for fifty years and the book I most admire is The Captain and the Enemy. It was Greene’s last novel and it shows everything he had learned in the fifty-nine years since publication of The Man Within. There isn’t a single word that should not be there.
Emulating Greene is a dream I will never fulfil but I try. This morning I wrote one thousand words (I have another thousand to do when I finish writing this) and, as always, I went back over what I had written, rewriting and switching words around to get the word count as low as I could. Simple things, like changing “if you didn’t know there was a house behind the high, thick hedge, you’d be unlikely to spot it from the road” to “if you didn’t know it was there you’d be unlikely to spot the house behind the hedge”. Twenty-two words to seventeen – a 23% reduction. I know, however, that before I’m done this morning’s thousand words will come down to no more than six hundred and the six hundred will be more readable, and say the same thing, as the one thousand.
It isn’t all due to the Good Housekeeping editor – I’ve put in a huge amount of work to get to where I am – but it started with her. I owe her an unpayable debt.
OVER TO YOU
- Is less really more? Or is verbosity ever justified?
- What’s the best lesson you’ve ever been given in your writing career, and who taught it to you?
- Join the conversation via the comments box!
“#Authors: learn from the best #writing lesson ever – via @jlynchauthor for #AuthorALLi: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/brevity/ #selfpub”