Editing Games: The Joy of Deleting Words

In my day job, I draft documents on complex and controversial topics. Lots of people do work like that. But I often face an unusual challenge: a one-page limit. Can that possibly be fun?

Here’s how it goes:

  • I’m tasked with drafting a one-pager on topics X and Y, proposing action Z;
  • I shake my head, thinking, that’s impossible to fit on one page;
  • I write 3 pages; and
  • I keep deleting words until it fits.

This occasionally excruciating process has taught me several valuable lessons for editing. I think of them as editing games. It's a way to enjoy converting 3 pages into 1. The games can be played with any writing, but the competition takes flight with fiction. Five ways to play:

 Maybe editing is no Settlers of Catan, but can't we have a little fun with it? Don't settle for less = don't settle for more words.

Maybe editing is no Settlers of Catan, but can't we have a little fun with it? Don't settle for less = don't settle for more words.

First, stick to what matters most. But wait, you say, fiction is about depth and immersion. Fair enough, but the best fiction excludes every line that fails to advance the story. Examples: descriptions that say one thing too many, internal monologue that travels in circles, sub-plots that drag. If the words aren’t moving the reader forward, if they don’t excite, then leave them out. Cut these lines and paragraphs. Chances are, no one will notice they’re missing.  

Second, tolerate no passive voice. “The fight was started by John.” That’s terrible, too long. “John started the fight.” That’s right. We’ve all learned this, but it’s essential for tightening a text.

Third, eliminate the adverbs. I’ve written about this game before. Adverbs are like whiskey: they burn as they go down, but after a few sips, you begin to grow numb to them. Put the whiskey (or the writing) down for a while, and the burn will be there waiting for you, just like it is for any fresh reader. Get rid of the burn. (Unless, of course, it’s a moment when you desperately need whiskey.)

Fourth, delete the least important words on each page. These might be adjectives, or silly phrases like “due to the fact that” (because!) or “at the present time” (now!). You have to hunt these down ruthlessly. Finding them leads to my personal favorite among the games...

Fifth, locate any paragraph with a word or two drifting onto a new line. These paragraphs are vulnerable. Surely they have an unnecessary word. Find it. Kill it. Laugh in sadistic glee as the whole line disappears, shortening your paper by a healthy margin. (Note: perhaps this is unnecessary for fiction, but it sure helps with one-pagers!)

Having fun yet? Okay, it’s no Settlers of Catan, but true writing nerds know how to celebrate the journey. If we keep practicing we might even compete with Strunk & White, the legends who say things like: “Vigorous writing is concise” and “Omit needless words.” True that.

Let’s make our words count -- J.B.