Weekly Writing Challenge: Papa Says Get Economical
No matter how long you’ve been blogging, there is always more to learn. As part of the Weekly Writing Challenges, we want to help you make your writing the best it can be — to challenge you to consider your writing from new angles, try new techniques, and have a bit of fun along the way. Every post is an experiment: the beautiful thing is, it’s not about being great or terrible or right or wrong. Just write.
To participate, tag your posts with DPchallenge or leave a link to your post in the comments. Please be sure your post has been specifically written in response to this challenge; obvious attempts to link-bait will be deleted. We’ll keep an eye on the tag and highlight some of our favorites on Freshly Pressed this Friday.
Yo Mr. White! And Mr. Strunk!
The infamous Strunk and White, purveyors of compositional advice, implore us to omit needless words in our writing. American author Ernest Hemingway, nicknamed “Papa,” embraced this writing philosophy. Known for an unadorned, sparse prose style, he favored short sentences with strong verbs and very few adjectives or adverbs. While Hemingway is well known for this style, he — like the rest of — worked hard at his writing:
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
– Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956
Omit needless words
In writing, it’s important to omit needless words, the cruft that obscures what you’re trying to say to your reader. Never use more words than you really need to communicate — be brutal: remove all the words unnecessary to conveying meaning. Let’s look at one example.
Consider this sentence. There are 19 words. Most of the words are cruft:
In order to fully understand and absorb a piece of writing I must go about reading it many times.
After revising, we’re down to eight words — less than half of the original sentence and the meaning remains.
To understand a text, I must re-read it.
Here’s what we chopped and why. If you’ve got this, then skip this section, collect $200 from Community Chest, and head straight to the challenge below. If you want the details, read on.
- We removed In order to and replaced it with simply, To. “In order to” is cruft — it’s stuffy and sounds like that old teacher with the stick stuffed up his butt. Never use in order to when you can simply use to.
- We axed fully. Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with adverbs. In this case, fully understand is redundant. If you understand something, you fully understand it. Get it?
- We yanked and absorb. Thirty lashes with a wet noodle for bloated waffle. The word understand is all we need. If we understand something, we’ve absorbed it too. No need to repeat ourselves, repeatedly.
- We replaced a piece of writing with a shorter, simpler word that conveys the same meaning: text.
- We nixed go about — taking these words out of the sentence makes it shorter, makes us sound less stilted, and gets us to our verb, read a bit faster. WIN.
- We revised, reading it many times. Changing reading to the simple, infinitive form of the verb, read ensures we’ll have an active construction. Simply saying re-read conveys the idea of reading a piece many times. That two-letter prefix, re does a lot of heavy lifting, and saves us a few words.
Not sure if a word is needed? Remove it and re-read your sentence. Does the meaning hold up? When you see a phrase, think about ways to shorten it, as in our example, “In order to,” becomes “To.” “Reading it many times,” becomes “re-read.” Now, you’ll get the chance to put this in practice with your own writing.
The Papa Hemingway Writing Challenge
There’s two different flavors of the challenge, depending on how much time you have to spend. You can do them both or pick one. Remember, there’s no right or wrong. Just write.
- I want to try this, but I don’t have a lot of time. With your new-found editing superpower, go back through your previous blog posts and pick a nice, crufty sentence, one chock full of adverbs, needless words, and airy phrases. Strip it down to the words required for meaning. Keep going until the idea remains, free of adornment.
- I’ve got the time for a meatier challenge. Hit me. Go back through your blog archives and find a bloated, nasty, air-filled paragraph. Copy it in all its former glory into a new post. Paste it a second time so that you can edit it until it cries for mercy and we can see the strong, shiny, new version below. Strip out the adverbs, replace weak verbs with strong verbs, axe the bloated phrasery that takes up space and yet says nothing.
Editing takes practice. Self-editing can be especially difficult because it’s often hard to see the problems with our own writing. Perseverance pays off — keep at it — the lean and mean prose you produce will be worth the effort. Don’t forget to tag your posts as #DPChallenge.
Looking forward to reading your shiny, new work!