Years ago—so many that I was typing on a portable typewriter—I had a deadline to meet. It involved finishing a book, and then typing it and delivering it by a certain day. Soon.
(I wish I could remember which book, but I can’t.)
I asked if I could use a friend’s out-of-town summer bungalow and took off a week from my librarian’s job. All permissions granted, hither I went and finished the draft of the book. Then, with only twenty-four hours till the deadline, I set my alarm for early the next day, got up, and commenced typing. Three hundred or so pages.
(This was in the day when writing was legitimately considered a form of physical labor.)
I began typing at six AM. At about three PM my hands were hurting so badly that I knew if I stopped, my fingers would lock, and I’d not be able to type anymore. At eight that night, or thereabouts, I finished the job.
(My aching hands could not type for a week. I was lucky not to get carpal tunnel syndrome.)
I got the manuscript in but that’s not the point of this tale. The truth is typing that way improved my text.
Surely you have noticed that with the almost universal usage of computers books have gotten longer, and bigger. That’s because when you typed on a manual typewriter—see above—you had an enormous incentive to cut your text. I know I did.
And this is the moral of today’s sermon: These days you can almost always make your work shorter, tighter. Computers make writing sloppy. Bloated. Computers have high-calorie counts.
Now I admit I have a fondness for tight writing. Hammett, Hemingway, Simenon, and Chandler, were my mentors. Yes, noir fiction. Not the stories as such, but the writing. It was not the dead bodies I liked but the lack of dead words. Loved it. Still do.
(Read my not-really-memoir, Catch You Later, Traitor .)
This all comes to mind because the other day I was trying to decide why I didn’t like what I was writing. I decided that the writing was bad. Bad in what way? Prolix. Wordy. Excessive verbiage. Longwinded. Rambling.
(I’m pleased that there are so many words for overwriting.)
So, I did what I so often do: I went through the text and tried to cut every unnecessary word/sentence/paragraph. In the past, when I have written a big—forty thousand word–book, I arbitrarily set a goal of cutting five thousand words. Or something. Maybe more.
(Computers, as if to apologize for the excesses they promote, have word counters! Sort of a built-in word-watcher plan.)
When you rewrite, keep in mind the well-known phrase made popular by designer and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more.” Far from Shakespeare’s “the unkindest cut of all,” making your text clean, lean, and tight is the kindest cut of all.
Your readers will thank you.
(Maybe your will hands, too.)