Or, Letting Other People Give You Word Limits
I am not a particularly concise writer. At the same time, I do not commit the more obvious offenses of verbosity, and so I do not, in general, spend a great deal of time tightening my prose. The main reasons I do it are to make sure I stay on topic, if I am writing a blog post or article, and to make sure my scenes read with the proper animation and scope, if I am writing fiction. Neither of these impetuses forces the same sort of reconfiguring compression that occurs when one is writing with significant space constraints.
I wrote two guest blog posts over the weekend, one for a guideline of 3-400 words, the other 800-1000.
My original lengths? Around 600 and 1200, respectively.
I cut them down to 392 and I think 1058—whatever the number, I know I didn’t quite get it down to an even thousand—and was shocked at how easy it was to do. I hacked out intro paragraphs, I chopped needless asides or qualifications, I trimmed all the fatty adjectives and adverbs that I could, and I was left with more appetizing prose, undoubtedly. Better than that I was left with servable prose, i.e., posts either within the requested guidelines or close enough not to matter.
I was shocked at this ease, because I often have trouble removing words from my writing, especially my fiction. If it sounds good enough on a read-through that the editor in me does not try and re-write the sentence, and if it doesn’t contain one of my line-editing “cues” to take a second look, then I generally let it stand. I read for sentences that don’t flow, not sentences that could flow a shorter distance. I tend not to worry if I’m running at 23,000 or if I’m taking out Stephen King’s recommended 10% to bring it back down to 20,700. I have assimilated into my subconscious voice enough of the tricks about adverbs and adjectives and active rather than passive tenses to know that taking out the ones which do slip past my defenses will not yield 10% of the manuscript, and, anyway, the ones I wrote in were written in for a reason.
But this exercise in space constraints has me thinking I should make an editing pass for precisely the sake of tightening. It’s not like it could hurt anything but my pride to discover that, in fact, I do pave the road to hell just like so many other writers have before me….
The only problem is figuring out what space constraint to give myself.