- by Elaine Isaak
Mark Twain once apologized to the recipient for the length of a letter because “I have not the time to make it shorter.” It seems like a strange thing to say–don’t we, usually, given time, make things longer? Isn’t it the press for time that makes us write briefly? In fact, revision is a slippery thing.
You may write short, and need to go back to add the descriptions, images, metaphors and moments that will give the work the weight it deserves. Or, just as often in a first draft, you may write long–giving yourself permission to just slop the words on, not taking the time to search for the right word, but rather using a batch of words that circle all around what you want to say. Then, on revision, you hone it down to just a few.
In fact, I often see beginning writers making similar mistakes about the quantity of words, or even scenes. They worry that the reader will miss the point, or that it’s not coming through clearly. I once had an editor tell me that my examples were extended–they went on longer than needed. Also, there were two or three where one would suffice. We were talking about character development. I needed to establish the effect of the character’s singing on his audience. A single good scene, in this case, gave the impression. More was simply superfluous.
Look for the same thing in lists, especially lists of attributes or adjectives. We often think of things coming in threes–it gives a nice sense of flow and structure. But if the three are too similar, chances are you only need one. In the effort to “show, don’t tell,” we go overboard. The hero is kind: here he is being kind to a child, to a dog, to a needy neighbor. . .the effect upon the reader is as if she is being bludgeoned with examples.
Many writers, in revision, aim to reduce a manuscript by a certain percent or number of words, averaging this over the number of pages. It’s good exercise for the writer’s mind to consider what might be slimmed or focused to bring the reader the essentials, minus the flab.