A few months ago, I was contacted by someone who wanted to post one of my Al’s Axioms on their website. “Al’s Axioms?” you say. Over the years I’ve reduced what little wisdom I have into simple statements—like a proverb. For example: “No one ever hit a home run from the dugout.” The contact came from a small publishing company who came across the quote on someone else’s page. It was nice of them to ask permission. One problem: The axiom they saw was not quite what I said, so I corrected it, sent it back, and gave them permission to use it. Here it is:
“Writing is putting words on the page; great writing is taking words off the page.”
Gripping, right? Okay, maybe not, but it gets the idea across. When I edit for private and professional clients the one error I repeatedly see is prolixity. Prolixity is the use of too many words in speech or writing. (My favorite synonym for the condition is logorrhea, from the Greek logos [word] and rhein [to flow].) It makes me giggle. Writers love words and, therefore, have a tendency to use as many as possible. Unfortunately, that leads to bad writing. Concise writing is clear writing so I spend a lot of time cutting the fat from my work. It ain’t easy.
Over the weekend I faced my biggest challenge in ridding the reading world of too many words. Ben Wolf, fearless leader of the flash fiction magazines Splickety (click here to see my interview with Ben) wanted to feature me in an upcoming issue and asked for a piece of flash fiction. Not familiar with flash fiction? It’s easy to understand. Flash fiction is a short-short-short story. Shorter than a skirt in the 1970s. Here’s the problem. I’ve never been able to sell a short story. I’m a long form guy. You know, book-length work. So I sez to myself, “How tough can it be?” A story concept that came to me years ago resurfaced, raised its hand and said, “Ooh, ooh, pick me.” So I did and started putting word on a page.
A thousand words isn’t much. I throw that much away most days. I finished the story quickly, checked the word count: 2500 words! Uh-oh. I knew I could tighten it some, but to meet the maximum word count I had to evict 1500 words. Sixty percent. More than every other word. In a flash I knew this was going to require another cup of coffee.
I spent Saturday morning cutting fat, compressing sentences, and reworking. I’m happy to report that I did it. All it took was seven or eight attempts. The point is this: We can tighten our work more than we think. “I can’t trim anymore.” I’ve said that but it can be done. Is it a good piece of fiction? Beats me. That’s for others to judge.
I sometimes feel like one of those people you see in old television comedies, trying to pack everything needed for a trip into one suitcase. Funny, but their’s always a part of me that says, “Either get another suitcase or take stuff out.” We must be open to taking stuff out.
Now, just for fun, I have not edited this piece down. I’m going to leave that for you to do. Have at it. See how much you can tighten this post. The post is 590 words as it stands. Let me know how you do in the comments section.