“There is but one art—to omit!” said Robert Louis Stevenson.
The hardest lesson aspiring writers need to learn is how to condense their writing– to not be afraid of leaving things out. Our thoughts and the language that we use to clothe them seem exceedingly important to us. We often find it difficult to leave precious words out of our story. Nevertheless, if we desire to be writers, we must learn to harden our hearts and edit our writing judiciously.
The critical aim of writing for your readers is not to inform exhaustively, but to suggest; not to thrust upon the reader’s own vision of truth and beauty in detailed completeness, but to awaken the reader’s spirit to help him see a vision of his own. To this end we must stand steadfastly, ready to omit, to compress, to sacrifice.
Aside from showing faith to the ideals of art, it frequently happens that condensing text becomes necessary for the benefit of your readers. The market for a story or article of five thousand words is more limited than for one half as long.
Even when you have ruthlessly revised and excluded irrelevant information, you may think your story is still too long for the particular magazine or website. The question that you ponder is just how you can condense your story even further. Of course, you may feel your story is so fantastic that the editor will make an exception, but the likelihood is that the editor will tell you to shorten it.
Art is long and space is limited. Compression of thought and ideas, of sentences and paragraphs, is sometimes practical, even when not an artistic necessity. But how do you compress?
Here, for example, is a paragraph from a story in a popular monthly.
“It was a simple coincidence, of course, like many events that make us smile and which we forget every month of our lives. To me it seemed to contain some hidden significance, and I could not clear my mind of the impression. When my wife came back from the living room I turned to her with the book in my hand, having opened to the page on which I had been reading only the night before, and I held it out to her with a sort of boyish expectation that she was going to be immediately interested also.”
Rewritten with a view to shortening, it reads:
“It was a simple coincidence, like thousands of events that make us smile and then forget about; but I could not clear my mind of the impression that it contained some hidden significance. When my wife returned from the kitchen, I held the book out to her, opened at the page where I had been reading the night before. I felt boyishly expectant that she would immediately be interested also.”
We have reduced one hundred words to seventy-two without changing its meaning. While we have not improved the paragraph, we certainly have met our goal of condensing a sentence without altering its meaning.
You might encounter the task of editing to the extreme. I remember one story I had cut and pasted to pieces with such thoroughness that it began to sound like a trailing of different stories. Even Stevenson himself, our apostle of omission, confessed that he is always “cutting the flesh from their bones!” All artistic expression has a dogmatic balance between over-abundance and scantiness.
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” — Dr. Seuss