Editor’s Tip: Tighten Your Prose By Giving Up Control
Last month I entered an essay writing contest that had a 500 word limit. As I started getting my words down to paper, I quickly came to the realization that I would have to really tighten up my prose in order to stay within the word cap. At first I was worried that by deleting certain words and phrases that I would be sacrificing important details that would leave my reader guessing. Yet, as I went through the revision process, I actually started to enjoy getting rid of unnecessary details, and ultimately came to the conclusion that by strategically deleting modifiers (e.g., writing “faucet” instead of “bronze faucet”), my essay actually became a stronger and tighter text.
Getting rid of extraneous words is hard for writers. We love words. The more words the better. But that just isn’t so. Of course you want your reader to be able to create a mental picture of what’s going on in your story, but too much detail is overwhelming, and not a little bit insulting for those readers that would like the freedom to create their own mental pictures of characters and settings.
It’s all about giving up control. So what if my reader doesn’t imagine the exact Eames chair that I’m describing. Maybe they have a better chair in mind, something that they have sitting in the corner of their own room. If I describe someone as an “English teacher-type,” I don’t necessarily have to describe every detail of the character, down to her plastic necklace, turtlenecks, and practical brown shoes. As a writer I have done enough by simply referring to the character as an English teacher, which I’m sure conjures up plenty of personal images based on your own experiences. Relinquish control to your reader and allow them the courtesy of developing their own mental imagery that will only serve to compliment your narrative.
Next time you’re writing a chapter, blog post, or website page, try and impose your own word count (500 words is about 1 page single spaced), and then stick with it! You’ll be surprised at how much cleaner and stronger your copy sounds