One of the things that is extremely important to a modern writer’s style is something called “word conservation.” In other words, how can you say what you need to say in the fewest number of words possible? Most people understand word conservation intuitively; ask someone about any legal, insurance, or financial documents and you’ll hear them say things like, “Wow, I can’t understand these documents. It’s so wordy.” Or even things like, “How did I miss that?” when referring to a decision or a sub-clause that didn’t work in their favor. Others, who have read 18th or 19th century literature, know exactly what it means to read long-winded, fancy prose that takes forever to get to its point.
Many modern writers opt to use a writing style which doesn’t mince any words. This is especially true for technical and business writing, since busy schedules require people to ask for information that leaves out the details for water cooler conversations or meetings. In fiction and non-fiction, word conservation is a function of a writer’s style. Of course, styles change for any number of reasons—time being one of them—and you could easily spend years researching the progression of word conservation through different authors, historically. Yet, there is also such a thing as “too much” word conservation—you can easily spot this style attribute when the prose sounds clunky and flows unevenly, making it difficult to read.
Whether or not you decide to use word conservation in your own writing style, it’s still important to know how to write succinctly because in this day and age there are many occasions that will call for a clear, direct writing style that has more of an impact on the reader.
Try these word conservation writing exercises:
Flash Fiction: Flash fiction, or flavor text, is a great way to put word conservation skills to use. After you decide on a word count (typically 500 words or less), spend a few minutes brainstorming about a story idea. When you brainstorm, don’t hold your imagination back and let the ideas flow. Once you have a basic plot formulated, then channel those energies into a story. Don’t worry about how long or how short it is, just get the words out on paper. After you have your new story, whether it’s 20 pages or 2, then pare it down to a 500 word piece of fiction. By forcing your story into tight constraints, you’ll find yourself stripping down your extra words until you get to the bone. Some writers find it best to get it all out before they edit; others can edit in their mind. Definitely work with whatever method is best for you, but often times if you’re not experienced writing in this format, it’s easier to hone and polish your work when you have something down on paper.
Editing: One of the ways to learn word conservation is to edit someone else’s work. Choose the wordiest, passive tense passage you can find; it doesn’t matter if it’s from “Last of the Mohicans” or your life insurance policy. Read through the passage a few times, then hack it to pieces until it makes sense. Change passive verb tenses (ex. was singing) to active (sing, sang, sung), slash prepositional phrases (books of poetry to poetry books), and change indirect phrasing to direct. By editing passages you already identify as wordy, you’ll become an expert at catching verbose phrases that may pop up in your own work.
Classifieds: Imagine you’re selling a product and want to write an ad for it in the newspaper. Limit your word count to 50 words or less. While 50 is typically more than what you might get in a media publication, the point here is to utilize words to sell your product. A variation of this is would be write a personals ad or an “employment-wanted” ad about “you”; highlighting a particular aspect of your talents, abilities, or personality. While the intent of writing an ad is different than writing a piece of fiction, mechanically you are still writing for an audience. The only difference is this time, you’re trying to use as few as words possible to sell an item or service—and not tell a story.
Media Synopsis: If you’re up for a challenge, try writing a movie, video game, book or other media synopsis. Take as much time and as much length as you need to fully describe the story. Once you’re done, pare your description down a couple of times until you can tell what happened in one paragraph. You’ll find that you’ll lose some of the action details, but as your description gets more and more focused, you’ll find yourself able to describe your own work—an essential concept if you want to sell or pitch your work to someone else.
See if you can come up with your own word conservation writing exercises. As you become more and more aware of the way you craft your sentences, you’ll find that you overall writing will improve, regardless of the way that you want to communicate or tell a story. Regardless, remember that while your writing style is your own, in these hurried times there are plenty of occasions that call for “tight” passages that is packed with words that engage the audience and retain readership.