Fewer Words for Greater Impact

Cynthia Ruchti

Blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

Fewer words for greater impact?

Those who write devotions are often held to a tough task–tell a complete story with a soul-stirring point and clear takeaway for the reader with a minimum of words.

too many wordsWhat a great exercise for serious writers.

If you’ve written 750 words today, see if you can whittle them down to 500 and still communicate everything that needs to be said with fewer words. Now try reducing the passage to 350 words. It can be done.

Strong writing isn’t weighed down by excess word-pounds. It is lean. Trim. Efficient.fewer words

Even literary writing–poetic, lyrical–isn’t measured by the length of words or sentences, but by beauty, by elegant use of language.

How many words is too many?

Any more than necessary. Editors improve our writing when they delete the unnecessary. Wise writers use fewer words. They don’t give editors reasons to delete.

  • He climbed up the stairs. (Delete “up.” If he’s climbing, we already know he’s headed up.)
  • With her hand in the air, she waved at the passing cars. (Delete “With her hand in the air,” since it’s understood that if she’s waving, her hand is in the air. BONUS: Delete “the” so it reads, “She waved at passing cars.” Note the improved rhythm of the sentence after “the” is discarded.
  • A bunch of goosebumps danced on top of the original set of goosebumps. She was scared. (Consider the impact of reducing this to “Goosebumps danced on goosebumps.” Removing “She was scared” gets rid of redundancy. We already know she’s scared. Hence, the goosebumps. “A bunch of” is no stronger than “Goosebumps,” since by nature goosebumps come in multiples. “On” is simpler than “on top of” and “original set of” is also unnecessary.)
  • Sweat drizzled down his spine and pooled in the folds of his neck. It was a hot day. (Resist the urge to explain, abbreviated to RUE. If you’ve shown the effects of the heat, you don’t need to also tell about the heat.)

Consider the impact of some of the most meaningful Ā “fewer words” verses from the Bible:

  • Jesus wept.
  • Come, follow Me.
  • It is finished.

In the comments section, free-write a sentence or two. Then show it rewritten, eliminating unnecessary words. What do you think? Stronger?

Once alerted to them, you’ll soon see excess words begging to be freed from the confines of your sentences.

CLICK TO TWEET: Are you holding unnecessary words hostage in your writing?

29 Responses

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  1. Oh, this will be a challenge, Cynthia! Here goes…this from one of my WIP’s, “Blade of Grace”, about the conversion of a shogun to Christianity.
    * Version 1 – Lord Watanabe’s eyes widened at his dinner guest’s words. Crudeness he could tolerate from this minor functionary, but a slur to his house…he drew his katana, sliced off the man’s head, and bowed to the corpse in observation of the niceties of etiquette before resuming his seat. The great hall, which had grown suddenly still, was soon again abuzz with the normal hum of mealtime conversation.
    * Version 2 – Lord Watanabe could tolerate crudeness but not a dinner guest’s insolence, and he quickly dealt with the minor official in the accepted manner. Wiping the blade of his katana, he resumed his seat after the requisite bow to the remains, and the normal mealtime conversation resumed.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      OH, ANDREW! What you DIDN’T say in the second version showed so much about the character of the character! And the reader was engaged in the story as if living it alongside the character rather than reading ABOUT it. Magnificent job!

      And this is a great example too that there was nothing wrong with version one. But by stripping away some of its excess, version two sings!

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    I’m not going to give examples. Instead, I’m going to share a couple of things that I’ve found helpful for reducing unnecessary words. I try not to use them in the first draft, but as I start editing, I find them anyway. By the time I’ve done several edits, I’ve stripped all except those I’ve deliberately chosen to use for a particular effect. Dialog sometimes needs a few to preserve the distinctive voice of the character.
    * I track my progress with an Excel file where I list the number of words in each chapter before I start the edits in one column and the number of words as the editing proceeds in an adjacent column. It’s fun to watch the numbers drop, and when they stop, I’ve got a tight manuscript.
    *One resource I found helpful when I started trimming the word fat was Rayne Hall’s The Word Loss Diet. She has a number of ebooks on the writing craft that I’ve found very useful, and they are ultra cheap in the 5-volume sets at Amazon.

  3. Ah, Cynthia, you’re standing on my soapbox! God called me to write to people who find it hard to read, to adult minds trapped in a child’s reading ability. They “plow” the text, word-by-word, line-by-line. Every word is hard work.
    *I don’t write to them only–I strive to write in ways that don’t exclude them. I keep my blog posts to a single screen, the words simple, sentences short, font large. Almost half of American adults read below the 8th grade level. I invite them to the spiritual conversation.

  4. Daphne Woodall says:

    That’s encouraging Cynthia because I’m recognizing unnecessary words as I write. It’s also why I write slow. I edit as I write. Ugh.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      If you’re someone who naturally notices throw-away words during the writing process, you can do one of two things. 1. Train yourself to leave them there, in which case you’ll be miserable for the whole writing journey, but ecstatic when you discover a large package of tossables when you edit. Or 2. Embrace your pace. šŸ™‚

  5. Great post, Cynthia. I have discovered two of my weasel words that I can almost always eliminate are “back” and “that.” I try to not use them in my first draft, but I don’t stress about it. I work to get the story onto the proverbial page. Then, in the editing, I am intentional about deleting.
    *I try to keep my blog posts at a certain length. If they go over, that’s when I work hard at tightening up and elminating words. I’ve cut 200 words out of a blog post before. And given myself a pat on the back. šŸ˜‰
    *I’m off to take boys to school. I’ll try free-writing a sentence a little later and see what comes out.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Jeanne, you made me chuckle. Mentally, I eliminated “almost” and “always” from your weasel word sentence. Looking forward to your examples later in the day!

      • Carol Ashby says:

        But you can’t always eliminate almost and always without changing the intended meaning of a sentence. I like the truth of your statement, Jeanne, even with or maybe because of the “extra” words. There’s a huge difference between “the bear almost killed the hiker” and “the bear killed the hiker.” I certainly prefer the longer version.
        “That” can usually be culled, but sometimes you need it if the sentence is to read smoothly. Absolute prohibitions are unwise.

  6. Cynthia Ruchti says:

    Carol, your point about “almost,” “always,” and “that” are well spoken. In our ruthlessness to trim words, we risk endangering the most important role of words–communicating. The true test is asking ourselves, “Can the sentence live without this word? Is the sentence stronger without it?”

  7. When my first book was accepted for publication I was amazed at the number of times I’d used the word, just, when the editor had me delete them.
    I guess we don’t hear ourselves talk, because we probably say the same words over and over in our daily conversation and don’t know it.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Sometimes our “pet” words are the ones that need to be jettisoned. Or pet phrases. Or overtelling. Or simple repetition.

      The red wagon protested as Jimmy loaded yet another brick from the pile near the back door. Dad wouldn’t need all of those bricks. He could spare a few for a sidewalk from the swing set to Jimmy’s treehouse. Clunk. Another brick landed in the bottom of the red wagon.

      The second time the word “red” is used, it’s unnecessary. A small detail, but by the time the word is used two or three paragraphs later, it will feel tiresome to the reader. The reader’s imagination already pictures the wagon–red and groaning. Sometimes we inadvertently insult our readers by describing what they already “see.”

  8. Cynthia, I love the examples you used from the Bible.
    I read about Gideon this morning, so here’s my free-write and rewrite. I need this practice as I hope to have more devotionals accepted by a Christian magazine I’m being published in next year.
    * We don’t have to fear that God can’t use us to reach others. Gideon is a good example of someone who was used by God to do great things even though he was the least of a family who was the least of the clans.
    * God’s not concerned with credentials as much as He’s impressed by faith (e.g. Gideon).
    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      Oh, Wendy! Good work! Try rearranging things a little to avoid the academic technique of (e.g. Gideon).

      Gideon’s story shows God’s not concerned with credentials as much as He’s impressed by faith.

      Or even:

      Gideon’s story underscores two truths. God’s not concerned with credentials. He’s impressed by faith.

  9. Angie Arndt says:

    Okay, let’s try it (and maybe you can help):

    It’d been one year since I lost Hope. Not an idea of hope, but a dog that kept me going through one of the darkest times of my life.

    Iā€™d lost Hope, not the virtue, but a dog who embodied it when I needed it most.

  10. Yes. Someone once told me to trust that my readers understand. If it’s understood, there’s no need to spell it out. Love this reminder, Cynthia. šŸ™‚

  11. A registered nurse of over 30 years, I have written policies, procedures, educational presentations for healthcare staff and informational sheets for patients and their families. Studies have shown that the greatest majority of people read and comprehend at about an eighth grade level. So for both staff and patients I wrote in clear basic language. The only difference were with staff I was able to use medical terminology more freely, but what linked those terms was still basic English.

    Now, I am writing fiction and nonfiction, just a newbie, but living it. Have been a member of MN NICE (the Minnesota chapter of ACFW) for six years taking in and learning as much as I can. Now I am actually producing some pieces. So, this post has been so helpful, as are the other posts I have been reading. Hmm, now for my example..

    She smiled widely, stretching her lips over her pearly whites.”That should get his attention,” She lifted her arm and waved wildly back and forth, as if her arm was a tail on the back end of a horse trying to swat flies away.

    Missy James smiled, flaunting her whitened teeth in the direction of the handsome new arrival. Her eyes focused on her target, she waved her arm like a horse’s tail on a hot day.

  12. Okay, I’m mortified any time I have an error, and I can’t go back and fix it. Ugh. Such as, “were” instead of “was” when writing about difference between writing for staff and patients. I get going writing out my thoughts and before long the earlier part of my comment has slipped off into Never-never Land, and I can’t scroll it back. Oh, I guess I will have to accept the challenge of editing as I go. It can only improve my skills, and that’s a good thing.