Refining a draft is a process of elimination

Reading time: About 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article written for the New York Times by Danny Heitman…

The debate over ‘writing short’ versus ‘writing long’ has been around since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450. Me? I tend to favour short. But I will always read very long articles if they’re well written.

That’s not to take away from the point made by Danny Heitman, in his brief and vigorously argued New York Times Opinionator article, Keep it Short. Heitman describes John Kenneth Galbraith being edited by the famous and famously demanding Henry Luce. 

Galbraith wrote: “In his hand was a pencil; down on each page one could expect, at any moment, a long swishing wiggle accompanied by the comment: “This can go.” Invariably it could. It was written to please the author and not the reader. Or to fill in the space. The gains from brevity are obvious; in most efforts to achieve it, the worst and the dullest go. And it is the worst and the dullest that spoil the rest.”

I found it particularly persuasive that after presenting this compelling story, Heitman concludes:

Refining a draft is a process of elimination that, like any contest advancing the survival of the fittest, tends to dramatize what’s left standing when the competition is complete.

The issue isn’t so much that our readers don’t have time (although of course they don’t); the bigger issue is: what sort of impact do we wish to leave? I like Heitman’s advice that we can dramatize what we leave standing.

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