The One-Sentence, Inelegant Guide to Good Writing

“Add things until it starts sucking; take things away until it stops getting better.”

That’s it. That’s the art of writing a book in a nutshell.

Writing a first draft means taking the seed of an idea or story and growing it.

I like this dictionary definition of the word develop: “to present the sequential events or successive stages of a story or argument . . . to add details to a basic plan or idea.”

That’s perfect. Writing = adding.

Then a funny thing happens. You realize that you’ve added way too much to the mix. Your bright-eyed, beautiful baby has developed a roll of fat around the middle. You poured everything in that draft—passages from your teenage diary, a funny story about your second cousin from Tulsa, your favorite recipe for guacamolé.

It’s starting to suck.

Time to start taking away.

Editing is mainly taking things out that obscure your original vision—that core insight that changes your view of the world, that defining moment in a character’s life.

So you start cutting—sentences, paragraphs, sections. You might even let go of whole chapters, realizing that they are actually the seeds of your next book.

This is fun—seeing how much you can remove and still make your manuscript shine.

Then you return to your manuscript and realize you were over zealous in spots. Some sections are a little too lean. They read like telegrams. The style is a little too crisp, a little too “Zen.” You’ve cut beyond the point where the book gets better.

So you go back to your flab file. This is the file where you stored all the passages that you cut from your first draft. (You do have a flab file, don’t you?) You take some of that stuff, rework it a little, and put it back in your book.

little flab is OK.

You go through this breath-like rhythm of adding and subtracting, expanding and contracting. Repeat until your editor tells you that you’re done.

Easy, right?

Note: The inspiration for this post is wonderful piece by Frank Chimero about “appropriatism”—the golden mean between minimalism and excess.

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