The art of concise writing


James Patterson knows the right way to tell a story.

Never use a word that stops the story. If a reader is stopped one too many times, he or she never comes back.

There was a time when a novel wasn’t considered a novel unless it threw 150,000 words our way.

Writers wrote epics.

We read epics.

We could spend months with the same characters in the same story. The story might go on for years, maybe decades, maybe generations.

Few have time to read those kinds of novels anymore.

We want shorter books.

We want shorter stories.

We want fewer characters.

Tell us a great story.

End it as quick as you can.

Let us read another. We’d rather read a book a day.

Don’t confuse us.

You don’t have to educate us.

Simply entertain us.

I’ve always agreed with George Orwell.

And what were his words of advice?

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it out.

Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

I have read books sprinkled sometimes liberally with words I have to stop and look up, and it’s my opinion that the writer is merely showing off.

Never use a word that stops the story.

If a reader is stopped one too many times, he or she never comes back.

I also think writers should stop worrying about writing a novel. They envision three hundred pages to go, and it frightens them. It’s a long and daunting road to travel.

Instead, they should be interested only in telling a good story. If that story happens to take a couple of hundred pages to tell, so much the better.

The mystery novelist James Patterson has the right idea.

He said: “I’m always pretending that I’m sitting across from somebody. I’m telling them a story, and I don’t want them to get up until I’m finished.”

As William Strunk always said, “Vigorous writing is concise.”

Elmore Leonard took the thought one step further, admitting: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

And Mark Twain pointed out, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very. Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Ray Bradbury summed it all up this way. He said, “Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet, if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look for his zest, see his gusto.”

I leave you now.

My zest is lost on Facebook.

And my gusto is misplaced on Twitter.

Hopefully, I can find them both before I write again.

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