Imagine you had to pay $1 for every word you write. Pretty quickly you’d start to pinch pennies. In my workshops I challenge writers to go through their scripts and scratch out every word that’s not earning its keep. They’re surprised at how many words are not worth a dollar. And they’re delighted at how much stronger the writing is when the worthless words are excised.
Here’s what I mean. This is a sentence I took from a radio news report. Eighteen words.
“He said that the cut backs in the health care field had placed hospitals in a crisis situation.”
Let’s trim it, using the dollar-a-word test. At this stage we’re not changing the sentence – just removing the flab:
“He said (that the) cut backs in (the) health care (field had) placed hospitals in (a) crisis (situation).”
We could even change ‘cut backs’ to ‘cuts’. That allows us to claim another dollar. Our trimmed sentence reads:
“He said cuts in health care placed hospitals in crisis.”
Ten words instead of 18 – an $8 saving. You might not be able to excise 40% of all your words. But you will be surprised and delighted by how many can be dispatched without affecting meaning.
Sometimes you just need to stop and think – ‘what am I trying to say?’
My thanks again to the Plain English Campaign for this before-and-after example:
“If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.”
Which in plain English is:
“If you have any questions, please phone.”
The best tool for a writer is the delete key. Cut, cut and cut again. Don’t settle for 18 words when you can say the same thing better in ten. We all overwrite. That’s what first drafts are for. The problems start when we accept a first draft as the finished product. The minute we fall in love with our words and sentences, we are in trouble.
(This article is an extract from our White Paper on Writing)
Neil Everton has distilled a lifetime’s experience with some of the world’s top news organizations into his Media Mastery training aids for anyone worried about talking to reporters. The video, books, e-books and workbooks are available in the Podium Coaching online store.