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YMMV: Edit for Economy Second (Line Editing, Part 2)

💰 It's the Economy, Stupid...

It's funny what gets lodged in your brain. There's a line from the Steven Soderbergh movie Ocean's 11 that I find myself coming back to frequently. It's just before the start of Act 3, when Rusty (Brad Pitt) is prepping Linus (Matt Damon) for his role in the heist. One of the pieces of advice he gives is "Don't use seven words when four will do." And this stuck with me, not because it was particularly important to that scene, but just because it felt like, I dunno... solid life advice? So naturally it found its way into my philosophy about writing, and that's why we...

Edit For Economy Second

Way back in my post about Writing to a Word Count, I talked about economy in writing, and how the idea of "word-economy" stays forefront in my mind while drafting and editing. Word-economy isn't about using the fewest words, it's about making the most effective use of your words. The idea goes back (like everything does) to the Attention Budget. Every word on the page is spending some of your reader's attention, so you don't want to waste any of them. Sometimes that means writing short, but sometimes it means writing long--ultimately, it's about using the right amount of words, whatever that amount may be. That's why I say to write "economically" and not "succinctly."

(Oh, and while I'm defining terms, let's go ahead and look at that word "Second," if only to make it clear that this is about priority order, not timing. That is, being clear is your primary objective and being economical is your secondary objective. You should definitely do it, but not at the expense of clarity. When we wrap this up in the next post about aesthetic--spoiler alert--it will be number three in priority.)

Okay. Let's get into it. Why is word-economy important? Apart from that Attention Budget stuff I harp on constantly.

For me, writing economically is about impact. If clarity is about making sure your reader can get through the story, then economy is about making sure your story hits your reader the right way. If clarity is about making the best use of your reader's attention, then economy is about directing their attention so it gets spent in the right place. And your primary tool here is going to be length.

You see there's an inverse relationship between the length of a piece of writing and the focus of that piece of writing. And that's because length is tied to level of information. The more information you give the reader in a single sentence or a single paragraph, the less significant each bit of information becomes. You can think of it like the composition of a painting. Consider Raphael's The School of Athens.

There's a lot of detail in that painting. But... do you remember any of the details? Probably not. You could remove any one of those scholars and you wouldn't even notice. To be clear, this is not a criticism of an Italian Renaissance masterpiece. The point of the painting is to create an impression of a time and place, not to draw you towards any one detail. They are collectively important, but they're not individually important.

Now, if you want to zoom in and find all the details, you absolutely can. There's Archimedes. There's Plato. There's that lady from the Guns 'N' Roses album covers. But, most viewers aren't going to spend minutes and minutes examining the details. They're going to look at it for thirty seconds, get an impression of a big Ancient Greek room full of smart people, and then move on to look at The Deliverance of Saint Peter.

A more extreme example would be the works of Jackson Pollock. These abstract paintings are just walls of visual information that still manage to convey meaning and emotion despite having no discernible detail whatsoever.

Compare that to Picasso's The Bull or Leonardo Di Vinci's Vitruvian Man.

The latter is a much starker piece that draws attention not even to its subject but to the way the subject is proportioned. And I want to stress that one of these is not objectively better than the other. They're doing different things. And you can absolutely apply this same sensibility to your own writing. And the best way to explain this is with examples, so I think it's time to spill some tea.

I'm going give you several different examples of paragraphs about a person named Erin spilling her tea. I mean literally spilling tea, not gossiping. With each example, we'll look at where your attention gets drawn, and what kind of situations this could be useful for. And we'll start small, so here's our first example:

The tea spilled.

This is about as stark as it gets. An entire paragraph of only three words. And it is maximally focused. The shortness and the paragraph breaks on either side are designed to tell you exactly one thing: what happened. It is giving you an answer to the question "What?" to the exclusion of everything else. When you see this kind of paragraph, you are being told that this is important, and that you need to linger on it. Think about the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35: "Jesus wept." There's a reason it resonates the way it does. The brevity of the sentence calls attention to itself, and this is impactful. (Whether or not this was the intention of Robert Stephanus when he added verse numbering to his NT translation in 1551, I leave as an exercise to the reader.)

But back to the tea. Let's say you wanted to also answer the questions "Where?" or "Who?" in addition to "What?" You can do this very simply:

Erin spilled her tea on the floor.

Still pretty sparse--especially if it is being used as an entire paragraph. But you can see how the impact of the sentence lessens with every added word. Not that this is a bad thing, per se. You can't try to make every sentence maximally impactful, because if everything is important then nothing is. Sometimes, for pacing reasons, you want to keep things moving along at a good clip while still conveying all the necessary information, but not inviting the reader to linger on it. And that's what the above paragraph does. It's short, it's matter-of-fact, it's still making sure you don't miss it, but it's not calling quite as much attention to itself as the shorter version.

And this is probably a good time to start asking yourself what you want this paragraph to be about. What information should the reader be taking away, and how important should it feel in the scope of all the information they're taking in? Another way of saying this: what is the purpose of this paragraph. Suppose you're using this paragraph to set up that the floor is wet because someone's going to slip on it later in the chapter.

Erin spilled her tea, and it went all over the floor.

Now we're conveying the exact same information, but we've added more length to the back half, which makes that part of the sentence feel more important. Even though we're making the whole thing less impactful, we are drawing attention to the most pertinent bit of information. If we instead wanted to draw more attention to Erin's role in the spillage, we put more words on that end instead.

Erin watched in horror as the tea spilled on the floor.

Now, again, these are all very short. This sentence feels like a story beat, so it makes sense that it would be, if not the whole paragraph, then at least the first sentence of a paragraph. But longer paragraphs are going to hit differently, which means they're going to be useful for different things. Say you wanted to exonerate Erin of blame by focusing on how she spilled the tea.

Erin's hands fumbled with the glass, but it was too late. The muggy summer air had left it slick with condensation, and it slipped from her desperate grasp.

Or maybe you want to draw the moment out. You want to call attention to it by forcing the reader to keep reading about it. Your paragraph might look something like this:

Erin could tell something was wrong the moment she moved. Maybe a muscle had faltered in her hand. Maybe it was the condensation on the glass. For whatever reason, it escaped her grasp. She watched in horror as it slid out of her fingers and down towards the carpet. The glass landed with a dull thud and the tiniest little bounce, just enough to send ice cubes and Darjeeling flying across the floor.

The effect here is that it stretches out time. We're spending five or six sentences on an event that only takes a second or two to happen. This makes it feel like it's playing out in slow-motion, which is how it could feel if you were watching this happen to your own carpet. We're also giving a lot of detail here because this makes it more engaging to read, even if the details aren't important. You don't need to know that it's darjeeling tea or that it's iced, or that the floor is carpeted and the glass didn't break. But they help paint an overall picture of the event and create context.

That said, it's not very impactful. It's too big to hit hard. But this can be useful when setting up for a subsequent paragraph to be impactful instead. If, say, the next paragraph was just a single word:


Now the focus isn't on the event itself, but on Erin's reaction to it. The longer paragraph sets the context so that the shorter one doesn't have to stop and explain itself. It can hit harder. And that's really what we're doing when we write fiction. We're using most of our paragraphs to create context for the important story beats so that they can play out with more impact. And that's, at a high level, what writing for economy is all about. More words = more attention but less impact. Unless it's very few words (like... five or less), which will have lots of impact and attention, but no context.

But remember, it's not just about more words or fewer words, it's also about not wasting words. This is where we come back to the quote from Ocean's 11 about not using seven words when four will do. Once you've got attention directed where it needs to go, the next question to ask yourself is: What can I cut without sacrificing clarity or changing the way attention is being directed? Are there words or sentences here that aren't serving any purpose?

It doesn't have to be a big-important purpose. But it should be some purpose. Do you have a sentence in your paragraph that's basically repetition of a previous sentence but it helps with flow and pacing? That is a purpose. Feel free to keep it. Because pacing is part of directing attention and flow is part of clarity.

That said, you can almost always find places to tighten things up. Something I see a lot from new writers is a sentence in which the character does something, and it's followed immediately by a sentence of narration explaining what they just did. Or they do something that demonstrates their state of mind, and then the narration describes their state of mind. You can very easily take an axe to that.

In my own writing, I find myself looking at sentences that are rambly because I've written them the way I would speak them... and I talk fast. To cite an example from this very post, up in the fifth paragraph, I have this sentence:

"If clarity is about making sure your reader can get through the story, then economy is about making sure your story hits your reader the right way."

The original version read like this (differences are underlined):

"If writing for clarity is about making sure your reader can get through the story, then writing for economy is about making sure your story hits your reader the right way."

The original version--with the extra words in it--is absolutely how I would say it out loud. But when I say it out loud, I can use inflection and timing to direct the listener's attention where I want it to go. On the page, words have to do all of the work, so trimming the fat becomes very important.

So that's what I'm on the lookout for when I'm editing for economy. Is there extra fluff in my sentences? Are there unnecessary modifiers? Are there adverbs I could cut by using a stronger verb? Are there digressions that are interesting on their own but don't really support the narrative? The use of paintings as an example up above very nearly got axed for that reason, but I decided that the visual aides were worth keeping in. Also, the previous sentence was kind of a digression and could probably go as well. Come to think of it, everything after the word narrative is rabbit-holing this paragraph.

Maybe I'll leave it as any example and then awkwardly transition out of it.

Anyhoo. In short, when writing economically, ultimately it all comes down to: Are the words doing what I need them do, and are there any I can get rid of?

Next time, we'll talk about how to make it pretty...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.