Visit any author's group or writer's conference and you will hear a lot of talk about word count. What is the ideal for your genre, or what might be a respectable daily word count when drafting, and plenty of theories are shared on how to increase it.
The discussion that is equally important: how to make every word count.
Writers everywhere want this secret formula. Mark Twain stated it concisely, "Writing is such an easy thing to do. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words that you don't need."
But wait a minute. Anyone familiar with Twain's quote will recognize that isn't exactly how he said it.
Wilbers points out that as a skilled writer, he "knew to eliminate wordiness and to condense and compress [his] statements for maximum effect." 1
What did Twain actually declare?
"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."Of course you can hear the difference in the two sentences. It becomes obvious, to make every word count, we need to eliminate the unnecessary words. And you want to answer with a cliche, don't you?
Easier said than done.
But it doesn't have to be. Think of wordiness like clutter. And then think of what William Zinsser declares in his book On Writing Well, "Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon . . . But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components." 2
So take a look at something you've recently written for some of the most common clutter piles.
Word Pairs: one and only, each and every, any and all, cease and desist (you get the idea, right?)
Redundant Categories: pink in color, round in shape, tall in stature (I hope I'm not guilty of these)
Needless Modifiers: true facts, personal opinions, new initiatives, end results, free gifts (whew!)
And one more way to make every word count--use verbs whenever possible.
"Don't make a recommendation; recommend. Don't take under consideration; consider."3
Make that: Locate your manuscript and revise.
1. Mastering the Craft, p. 53
2. Mastering the Craft, p. 55
3. Mastering the Craft, p. 59
4. Mastering the Craft p. 57
p.s. (Yes, I'm including a post script in a post about making every word count. The irony is not lost on me.) But I LOVE one of his exercises for getting rid of useless words. Exercise #4: "Take a sentence of your writing. .. Count the number of words in the sentence. Place a $5 bill on your desk for every word. Now delete any unnecessary words you find. For every word you eliminate without altering your meaning or harming the natural rhythm of your language, pick up and keep a $5 bill. The next time you write, imagine that you're paying $5 for every word in your message." 4
PEGGY: Trimming the unnecessary from not only my writing, but my speaking, has been a goal. I love that Wilbers points out the redundancy of things like tall in stature. I just found one in my own WIP: "Her two friends, Sharmyn and Marcella..." The reader will know that there are two, no need to beat them over the head with it. Revised: "Her friends, Sharmyn and Marcella..." Remembering that cutting unnecessary words helps my pace helps me not feel so bad about cutting those precious words.
Valerie: Unfortunately, it takes several revisions, in my experience, to whittle a manuscript down. For some reason words or phrases that sounded fine before, jump out as being wordy clutter the next time through. A tip I've tried: Change the font type and size of your text so that your brain is forced to engage and not skip over what it has read so many times before.