word craft


“Less is more.”

typewriter wordsYears 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.) 

4 thoughts on ““Less is more.””

  1. So inter­est­ing that com­put­ers con­tribute to over­writ­ing. Now what con­tributes to the overuse of
    Jump­ing back & forth in time? Hard­ly any lin­ear sto­ries anymore—maybe I need to read more children’s lit

    • @Cathy Bon­nell, I agree there’s an overuse of time jump­ing. It’s rarely done effec­tive­ly, and I find myself as a read­er skip­ping ahead to keep the sto­ry lin­ear, then going back to read the “sec­ond” sto­ry. Some­times the same goes for two nar­ra­tors (in dif­fer­ent times or the same).

  2. It’s cool to know you’re so proud of that book and you real­ly nailed the shot heard ’round the world. I had all kinds of base­ball his­to­ry books and VHS’s as a kid. I think Ken Burns even did a his­to­ry of base­ball; it was 8 tapes and I watched all of them!! Look at me get­ting all ver­bose and off top­ic! But seri­ous­ly, that girl was so cute with her lit­tle tagline of Catch You Lat­er Trai­tor. I’ll nev­er for­get her and it’s much more fun than Sea­son of Sus­pi­cion. God, that was a great book. My daugh­ter and I loved it so much. Speak­ing of trai­tor books and since I’m on a com­put­er and I’m already too long for a com­ment, I might as well keep going. You real­ly nailed it with The Trai­tor­’s Gate, too. Your nar­ra­tor just killed it with the father’s act­ing, “Your finest room, of course.” I love you so much and thank you for all the laugh­ter and warm mem­o­ries you have giv­en me with my daugh­ter. I could nev­er repay you, but maybe I’ll cut down on words in the future and just say thank you 🙂

  3. Com­pet­i­tive typ­ing dates to an era when type­writer man­u­fac­tur­ers held com­pe­ti­tions at places like Madi­son Square Gar­den. The events drew thou­sands, but pop­u­lar­i­ty waned after the first half of the 20th century.

    In 2008, though, the Type­R­ac­er web­site went up and drew a devot­ed com­mu­ni­ty. Now, there are mul­ti­ple web­sites where users log scores over 200 words per minute and an Ulti­mate Typ­ing Cham­pi­onship. It’s a “grass-roots move­ment,” one said. “It seems like this spe­cial thing that some peo­ple want to keep secret and spe­cial and tight-knit.”


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