Readers of Tim Ferriss’s 2007 book The Four-Hour Workweek might be familiar with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery that appears on page 65 of the book: “Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away.” This is especially evident in writing. Free-writing is the process of assembling raw material, but careful editing is like sculpture or construction. It is the process of taking unorganized material and fashioning it into something useful. As people get more productive and as their time gets more valuable, it will become progressively more important to pack as much information into as little space as possible. Here are a couple of editing steps that can help you write tighter, more lucid prose.
1. Write a Reverse Outline. I learned this a few summers ago when I participated in an Academic Ladder Summer Writing Club. Basically, you take your finished rough draft and then write an outline based on the draft. This helps you identify repetition and redundancy, which then gives you what you need in order to move to step 2.
2. Eliminate redundant passages that repeat things you have said earlier in the draft unnecessarily. Redundancy can be the sand in the gears of your rough draft. Prose that was swift, fluid, and interesting gets dull fast when you’re making ineffective use of redundancy. That isn’t to say that repetition isn’t useful, but a lot of times you might end up repeating yourself either because you can’t think of anything more interesting to say or because your thoughts are fundamentally disorganized. So what do you eliminate, and how?
3. Eliminate unnecessary pages and paragraphs. It’s appropriate to begin the editing process with a chainsaw. Editing that crappy first draft–and you should always give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft, no matter how bad it is, as long as you get it on paper–is not the time to be delicate. There are probably large swaths of your draft that can be eliminated without reducing the quality of your final product. I’ve gotten comments like this at conferences and from journal referees. In one case, a conference commentator liked a paper I had written but suggested that I eliminate the first nineteen pages. I received a revise-and-resubmit request on a journal article once suggesting that I eliminate the first fifteen pages. And so on. The idea that a piece of writing is good just because it is long might be appropriate for a sixth grade language arts class, but it is wholly inappropriate for serious writing. Past a certain wordcount, the returns to additional words are sharply diminishing.
4. Eliminate unnecessary sentences. Now it’s time to start being more careful. You’ve eliminated redundant paragraphs, and now it is time to look within the essential exposition to see where you can clarify. There is still likely to be some junk here that can be eliminated without compromising your message. Your readers’ time is very scarce. Don’t waste it.
5. Eliminate words, then syllables. Simple expression elucidates powerful thinking, and it has been said–though I forget by whom–that you should never use a ten-cent word when a five-cent word will do. In the process you will clarify your analysis, clarify your own thinking, and do an important service for your readers.
You’ve probably noticed, perhaps with irony, that this article is imperfect. The last couple of times I have taught writing-intensive sections of economics 101, I have given students a bonus assignment in which I give them my own interpretation of the first writing assignment–the last couple of times it has involved Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, if you’re curious–and asked them to grade my paper according to the rubric by which I grade their work in exchange for a few bonus points. I think they have fun with it, it’s a nice way to let them peek behind the curtain, so to speak, and suffice it to say it is always fun and informative to read my students’ comments on my own work. So here’s an exercise for everyone reading: what would happen this article look like if you applied the editing suggestions I gave you above to what I’ve written here? If you take a shot at it, I would be interested in seeing the results either via email or in the comments. Happy editing!