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Are you using too many words — deliberately? It’s a bad habit and you’ll be a much more successful writer if you deal with it now…
Are you the type of person who deliberately writes more words than you need?
I’m not talking about people who write too many words inadvertently. You know what I mean by that – people who are inveterate “throat clearers,” which is to say they tend to ramble for at least a couple of paragraphs when they’re starting a piece. If you fall into this category, I recommend paying attention to the advice of Strunk & White’s guide, The Elements of Style:
“Omit needless words. 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 every word tell.”
But today I’m not talking about plain old “wordy” people. Instead, I’m referring to those who explicitly start using too many words, so that they have plenty of room for “cutting” afterwards.
Many of these people are from the academic world and they feel deeply uncomfortable with the act of writing while simultaneously feeling a panic about publishing. Using too many words soothes them, and makes them feel more secure. When they sit in front of a computer screen and force themselves to apply their fingers to the keyboard, they believe they are working. They think writing this way is easier because it helps them to get started, allows them to figure out what they really want to say and stops them from procrastinating.
But here’s why you should never approach writing with the goal of getting way more words than you need: It will take you much longer to write this way.
Why longer? Well, to start, you’re going to be writing for longer. In fact, if you need 8,000 words and therefore aim to write 16,000 it will likely take you twice as long. But that’s not where the extra work ends. Keep in mind you’re also going to need to edit for longer, because you have twice as much work to adjust, and more cuts to make. And the editing will likely be harder, too, because there will be so many unnecessary words (and ideas) you’ll have to deal with. But, also be aware that you’ll likely need to do more research, too, because all those extra words won’t come from nowhere. They’ll need to be sourced and cited. And this “research rabbit hole” can be time-consuming.
These reasons are why I never counsel writing more words than you need. Instead of doing unnecessary work, I suggest aiming for the “Goldilocks” standard — which means you spend just the right amount of time and energy on your research, writing and editing, leading to just the right word count.
If you were a car manufacturer, you wouldn’t produce 3,000 more cars than you needed, would you? Or if you were a plumber, you wouldn’t spend five extra hours fixing one toilet, just to ensure you got the job right? Or if you were a bricklayer, you wouldn’t mud in 500 unnecessary bricks, would you? No, no and no!
But, you might object, writing is a more creative act. You can’t really compare it to cars, toilets or bricks. True enough. But if you were a jewellery maker, would you produce 45 more pairs of earrings than you could sell? If you were a musician, would you write a song with 78 unnecessary bars? If you were an actor, would you recite a thousand more words than your script contained? Even creative people understand the need to match their effort to the outcome.
When writing, stay focused like a laser beam on what you’re doing. Know how many words you need to produce and stay firmly on that goal. Your word count and your subject matter, together, should give you a clear idea about the volume of research you need to do. For example, a ‘big’ subject (e.g.: Shakespeare, World War II) and a short word count, will lead to an encyclopedia-entry type of text. While a smaller subject (e.g.: a Shakespearean sonnet, the Siege of Malta) and a long word count will lead to significant, but highly targeted research.
As a writer, you want to do the least amount of work for the best possible result. This does not come from using too many words. Instead, it comes from focus. Here’s how to plan a focused writing process:
- Begin by identifying your word count goal. (Always start with this step.)
- Determine how much research you need to do to begin and do it.
- Think about your subject — really think — and do this away from your desk, ideally while you are walking. Don’t cut short this thinking time. It’s not procrastination, instead it’s essential for your writing.
- Do a mindmap to inspire yourself.
- Write a little bit each day (200 words a day is far preferable to 1,000 words once a week.)
- Edit what you’ve written.
If you follow this system, you won’t consider using too many words because you’d only be creating more work for yourself. Instead of doing that, embrace your inner Goldilocks and aim for a “just right” word count.
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Do you have the habit of using too many words when writing? How do you deal with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!