When in Doubt Cut it Out

The day my piece about how to write the college essay appeared I heard from a young woman in Canada who was wondering if I could take a look at what she had written for her first-person essay. Hers was 80 words longer than the 500-word limit she said. Could I see what I thought of it and maybe help her figure out what to cut?

“Sure!” I said. I’m 30 years a columnist! I probably can’t write more than five or six hundred words together anymore. I told her I’d love to read her essay, which turned out to be so charming, I almost couldn’t see what to cut.

So instead I gave her a piece of advice I’ve never given myself, which was to go through the piece and take out just about every adverb she came across. In fact I went through it and did that, then emailed it back so she could see what she thought.

I’m not sure she liked the new version but I sure did. To me it seemed so much stronger and more, I don’t know.. authoritative without the adverbs. It’s a paradox: I mean you think these modifiers are really going to light up your writing but instead they make you sound like you’re trying to coerce a certain response from your readers, or put something over on them, or God forbid sell them something.

Today I’ve been mentally composing something about this past weekend when our littlest grandchild, under our care for a day and a night, slowly sickened. I could write “He was very cold, he said,” or I could simply write  “He was cold, he said.” Just setting this down helps me see that the second sentence is probbaly the more effective one – and not just because it’s shorter. Sooooo what if I apply this rule to my own writing? Flipping through the first book I ever did, I came upon this description of the day my appliances died. Here’s how it looks as published:

Last week the dishwasher, bloated up with its weird fluids, suddenly chuffed dangerously and began bleeding water from every seam; water which flooded, Nile-like, under the island, under the rug, and on 20 feet or more into the living room. Two hours later, the air conditioner groaned by way of a suicide note, leaned back sharply and tried to jump out the second-story window. Strong hands and split-second timing were all that stood between it and shattering death on the sidewalk.

And here it is without most of the modifiers:

Last week, bloated with the usual fluids, our dishwasher suddenly chuffed and began bleeding a stream of water that flooded both floor and rug and snaked all the way to the living room. Two hours later, the air conditioner groaned by way of a suicide note, leaned back and tried jumping out the second-story window. Strong hands and split-second timing were all that stood between it and death on the sidewalk.

The second one really is better! Anyway it’s far less wordy.

Which means that Strunk & White were right in saying “When In Doubt Cut it Out” and that old Shot Myself-in-the-Face Hemingway knew what he was doing when he took that boning knife out and pared, pared, pared away at his sentences.

I read back over this and see that I too have gone over 500 words,  which I hate to do to you guys, suffering already with eyestrain. So hey thanks for wading through this. And thank YOU Emily from Canada for helping me re-learn a valuable lesson. 🙂

(A page from the chapter of my first book here. God it was fun to publish these collections! )

8 thoughts on “When in Doubt Cut it Out

  1. I agree with you, and learned the same lesson almost thirty years ago under a compassionate but eagle-eyed mentor. The style (though not substance) of my writing completely changed, and served me well in my career as a tech writer. (And for some similar reason, I never could stand Dylan Thomas, words upon words, take a breath already! I might be the only one in the world (see,coulda chopped off “in the world” and y’all woulda known what I meant; left it in for exaggerative humor 😉 who finds his writing tedious. But alas, having not been a techwriter for a long while, extra wordage crept back into my writing, only this time there was no kindly mentor to help me strengthen it again. However, there are articles like this one and there was FACEBOOK with its X Character word limits! Ach! I rebelled! I raved! And then, I re-learned. So, thank you Terry, and thank you FB, for reminding me how to be a better writer!!

  2. My dad’s mentor at Harvard was the famed Bliss Perry. Add Dr. Strunk to the mix, and you have first class teachers. I care about good writing, which makes it a pleasure to read Terry’s pieces and the responses which occur here.

  3. But then again, how I love to bask in the wordiness of, say, a Taylor Caldwell who can somehow write a perfectly descriptive 56-word sentence only five paragraphs into “Great Lion of God.” This, of course, is followed by more and more detail and, before you know it, you can plainly see Deborah bas Shebua and all of the other characters in your mind as if they were your friends and neighbors. When you get to the bottom of page 597 and Saul’s (or Saint Paul’s) “eyes welled with tears, but his lips smiled with love, and he lifted his hand and said, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One!’ you are sorry that the story has ended.

    I wonder what would be cut out? Our society has gone a-Twitter, I fear.

    1. so clever Art! Our society has indeed gone twitchy with twittering! Thanks for this passage and I do see what you mean: sometimes the journey really IS the destination !

  4. I don’t understand how universities can use college essays to select applicants, as some of them do it all themselves, others have them ghost-written, and every degree of editorial assistance in between. Terry, your advice in your first piece is “do it yourself”, but then when the Canadian woman asks you for editorial suggestions on hers, you agree…

  5. Terry, your piece could not be more timely. I am sending it to my 16 students over here in Ireland. They write essays each week for their critical thinking class. I am constantly editing their excessive adverbs to provide clarity and strength in their writing. I hope it helps to hear it from a pro!

  6. well Chris I was just addressing word count; really just stumbled on the adjective adverb gimmick as an experiment for her to try. “Here’s a crazy idea” I said by way of a start. Really I DO think the kids should speak in their own voices . The best question for anyone who wished to help to ask is “what do you really want to say here? as in ‘what’s in your heart?’

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