Cutting words is a good exercise for the budding writer. But doing too much of it does more harm than good. So as you write, keep these three simple, word-saving things in mind.
"As the train lurched into motion, Seabiscuit was suddenly agitated. He began circling around the car in distress. Unable to stop him, Smith dug up a copy of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang magazine and began reading aloud. Seabiscuit listened. The circling stopped. As Smith read on, the horse sank down into the bedding and slept. Smith drew up a stool and sat by him."
This passage, as you may have guessed, is from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
JK. It’s from Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. The paragraph has seven sentences, one of which houses 19 words. Roy Peter Clark dissects this passage in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer. I adore the book, by the way. You must have it in your life.
Clark calls out a fascinating technique Hillenbrand utilizes in the passage. The sentence length in the paragraph was dictated by the action being described. “Seabiscuit listened” and “The circling stopped” were the quickest actions, and thus, the shortest sentences. Isn’t that a trip?
Hillenbrand, Clark says, uses sentences of varying lengths to create the music, the rhythm of the story. Which brings me to my next point.
If you vary your sentence length, you’ll have more dancing on your hands than a Kenny Loggins concert in Bomont. But if you make your sentences conform to each other, the dancing stops.
Check out this legendary passage from Gary Provost.
"This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important."
Can you feel how alive that last sentence is? Don’t ever fear the long sentence. The best way to get readers to dance with you is not to ruthlessly prune, but to vary.
I said in the headline that sentences don’t need to be short. Just good. So how do you write a good one? Well, at the most basic level, a good sentence makes readers want to continue onto the next one. Vary the length, dig to unearth details that appeal to the senses, and trust your instincts. The more you write, the more you’ll know whether a sentence is too hot, too cold or just right.
Cutting words from your writing is a healthy exercise. But as you trim, if a sentence screams out “Please, no! I have so much more to say!” then I suggest you hear it out. That little try-hard just might become the star of the show.