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My own work. Created using "Inkscape"...

Giving yourself a fake word count forces your writing to shed paragraphs and pages. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I WAS WRESTLING  to get comfortable on a wooden courtroom seat when I realized  a rule I follow in journalistic writing would probably tighten my creative writing too. In fact, I thought, I bet my chapters could shed entire paragraphs, then pages, and the trimmer versions, like diet-succeeding humans, would be stronger, stand taller,  and smile.

The chair had long turned my hind end numb. I buckled out of it and sat on a red-carpeted step.

For the last three weeks I have been covering the trial of a former teacher just found not guilty of having a sexual relationship with one of her students. Some days I filed for the nearest daily, The Kelowna Daily Courier, and sometimes I filed for the Canadian Press (CP), a news-sharing agency, and because the Courier subscribes to CP, I was sometimes, in effect, writing for both.

On those occasions, I would send a version to the Courier that was often quite long, sometimes 640 or 700 words. The accused was a local woman and our readers wanted to hear all the details about where and how she and her student allegedly had sex (in a school supply room near the crayons, for example). Then I would send to CP the 500-word version, a standard word count that offered other newspapers the gist of the story.

The 500-word story, you can imagine, wasn’t just shorter. Usually, it was better. Why?

Because I couldn’t be careless with a single word. I had heaps of information to relay–the accounts of several witnesses testifying on a single day, background information, comments made outside court–and I attempted to recount it all in an interesting way. And in only 500 words.

So I had to be economical, and exact. Not a single needless word or sentence. With each line, I asked: Is this necessary? How can I tighten this?Sometimes, as journalists understand, it was a matter of turning a who, that, which clause into an adjective (Instead of ‘the dog, who has diabetes’, the diabetic dog’), and sometimes I simply had to be ruthless and cut quotes that weren’t imperative.

In 500 words, I had to be economical, and exact. Not a single needless word or sentence. When I had up to 700 words, my writing got a little lazy.

When I had up to 700 words, my writing got a little lazy. Sure I was able to include more details about hotel beds and cabin bunks and quotes about seeing things at dusk in the summer, but I think there’s a chance quality suffered in an aim for quantity.

Journalists sometimes use what’s called an upside-down pyramid structure for writing. The most important information is at the top and all succeeding paragraphs grow less relevant so editors can simply trim from the bottom up. That structure doesn’t work in creative writing, but what creative writers can borrow from journalists is the ability to use only words and sentences that are absolutely necessary.

So what’s my cure for overweight writing? A fake word count. Your chapter will emerge skinnier, but, more importantly, stronger.

So what’s my cure for overweight writing? A fake word count.

Let’s say your chapter is 4, 138 words. Tell yourself your editor says you have to get it down to 3,500, or even 3,000. Stick to your fake word count. Dissect each line and ask if it needs to be there, or if there’s any way you can tighten it. Can you use a single verb (crept) rather than an adverb + verb (walked slowly). Think: This has to get down to 3,500 words.

It might be tough at first to ‘kill your darlings,’ as they say in England, but once you see how dramatically it improves your writing, you’ll probably be trigger-happy.

I promise your story or your chapter will emerge skinnier, but, more importantly, stronger.

If you gave this exercise a go, what were your results?