I Never Met a Manuscript I Couldn’t Improve by Deletion: A Challenge

Every time I speak about writing and editing, particularly to a group of less experienced authors, I make a categorical statement: I have never edited a manuscript that couldn’t be improved by deleting about 20-30%. (And I have edited more than a thousand books.) As with all rules and truisms, there are the exceptions that prove them. But, by and large, everybody overwrites.

Recently I read an article in a recent New Yorker by John McMpee, one of the grand old men of creative nonfiction (before the term was invented). You can read it here. The article ranges far and wide. It’s well worth the read. McPhee talks about choosing your words to make room for the reader to enter into the article or book. What beautiful idea. If you want to write nonfiction, you should read, no study, this article.

McPhee writes about his time at Time magazine when writers were asked to condense the text by a number of lines. The pieces were marked “Green 5” or 8 or 15, the number of lines by which the writer was to cut his or her piece. This needs to be done carefully, preserving the author’s tone, like carefully pruning a plant. (I’m paraphrasing here.) That’s what McPhee tells his writing students when he asks them to green 10 percent of one of their own pieces.

McPhee challenges his students to green 10 percent of one of their own short pieces. That’s your challenge. Can you bear to delete 10%?

(If you want more, there’s a list of famous pieces in the article, including the Gettysburg Address, all of which the students are asked to green.)

This blog had over 487 words in it the first time around.

First write, then edit!


One thought on “I Never Met a Manuscript I Couldn’t Improve by Deletion: A Challenge

  1. Wise advice. This particular idea is not new but is very much worth emphasizing, as it was in the classic guide.

    “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

    — Elementary Principles of Composition, The Elements of Style


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