"What's one simple thing I can do to write better fast?"

I get this question a lot and my answer is always the same: Cut.

three gears from The Word Factory logo

Ann Handley says everybody writes.

I say everybody overwrites.

Ann Handley says "everybody writes." 
Margot Lester says "everybody overwrites."

In fact, Poynter's Chip Scanlon estimates that we all overwrite by 15-20%.

Yes, all of us. Professional tweeters and caption writers. Skilled novelists and TedTalk presenters. That person you hold in the highest regard as a writer. Everybody.

We all overwrite because writing is processing. And processing isn't streamlined out of the gate. Extra words and clunky constructions are part of our thought processes. Writing is like thinking out loud, only on a keyboard or with a writing utensil.

The processing is necessary work. Good work. But it's work that gets us only part of the way there.

Getting from good to effective takes pruning and shaping.

Quick tip for better writing: Cut 20%

The first step to being a more effective writer, or maybe the only step when pressed for time, is to search and destroy that 20%. Lop off anything that doesn't need to be there, that gets in the way of your point and that slows down readers' comprehension.

I know. It feels too easy. Or too unfocused. Or like you'll dilute your work.

Trust me and try it. Ok?

My mom's cherished loppers and clippers. Gardening tools, but also metaphorical editing tools.
These gardening implements are useful editing tools as well.*

Here's how to execute the 20% Rule: Take the total word count of your draft, figure out 20%, prune toward that target.

  • Delete extra adverbs and other modifiers like very and really.
  • Combine or divide sentences to boost rhythm and flow.
  • Zap unnecessary intros and qualifiers (I think and in conclusion can be axed without negative impact)
  • Jettison clichés (at the end of the day, drill down are common)
  • Replace lazy verbs with hard-working ones that describe both what's happening and how it's happening (examples: boost, zap, jettison and axed).

The result: tighter text that conveys ideas efficiently.

The 20% Rule has been my go-to min-bar revision strategy since I learned it 2003 at a writing workshop with Mr. Scanlon. There was widespread skepticism when he dropped this nugget on the crowd. Then we tried it. Instant improvement.

Now it's your turn. Try it on the next thing you have to write. I wager you'll get similarly good results.

Bonus item: It's also a good tactic when someone thrusts a piece of writing in your face (or in box) and says "Can you take a look at this for me?"

* These implements belonged to my mother, an avid gardener and ruthless pruner. She was known (only to her family) to move through the neighborhood under cover of darkness shaping up and cutting back unruly shrubbery. While I don't go that far (very often), I share her love of pruning both my yard and my writing.