Papa Says Get Economical

No matter how long you’ve been blogging, there is always more to learn. As part of the Weekly Writing Challenges,…

No matter how long you’ve been blogging, there is always more to learn. As part of the Weekly Writing Challenges, we want to help you make your writing the best it can be — to challenge you to consider your writing from new angles, try new techniques, and have a bit of fun along the way. Every post is an experiment: the beautiful thing is, it’s not about being great or terrible or right or wrong. Just write.

To participate, tag your posts with DPchallenge or leave a link to your post in the comments. Please be sure your post has been specifically written in response to this challenge; obvious attempts to link-bait will be deleted. We’ll keep an eye on the tag and highlight some of our favorites on Freshly Pressed this Friday.

Yo Mr. White! And Mr. Strunk!

The infamous Strunk and White, purveyors of compositional advice, implore us to omit needless words in our writing. American author Ernest Hemingway, nicknamed “Papa,” embraced this writing philosophy. Known for an unadorned, sparse prose style, he favored short sentences with strong verbs and very few adjectives or adverbs. While Hemingway is well known for this style, he — like the rest of — worked hard at his writing:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

– Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Omit needless words

In writing, it’s important to omit needless words, the cruft that obscures what you’re trying to say to your reader. Never use more words than you really need to communicate — be brutal: remove all the words unnecessary to conveying meaning. Let’s look at one example.

Consider this sentence. There are 19 words. Most of the words are cruft:

In order to fully understand and absorb a piece of writing I must go about reading it many times.

After revising, we’re down to eight words — less than half of the original sentence and the meaning remains.

To understand a text, I must re-read it.

Here’s what we chopped and why. If you’ve got this, then skip this section, collect $200 from Community Chest, and head straight to the challenge below. If you want the details, read on.

  • We removed In order to and replaced it with simply, To. “In order to” is cruft — it’s stuffy and sounds like that old teacher with the stick stuffed up his butt. Never use in order to when you can simply use to.
  • We axed fully. Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with adverbs. In this case, fully understand is redundant. If you understand something, you fully understand it. Get it?
  • We yanked and absorb. Thirty lashes with a wet noodle for bloated waffle. The word understand is all we need. If we understand something, we’ve absorbed it too. No need to repeat ourselves, repeatedly.
  • We replaced a piece of writing with a shorter, simpler word that conveys the same meaning: text.
  • We nixed go about — taking these words out of the sentence makes it shorter, makes us sound less stilted, and gets us to our verb, read a bit faster. WIN.
  • We revised, reading it many times. Changing reading to the simple, infinitive form of the verb, read ensures we’ll have an active construction. Simply saying re-read conveys the idea of reading a piece many times. That two-letter prefix, re does a lot of heavy lifting, and saves us a few words.

Not sure if a word is needed? Remove it and re-read your sentence. Does the meaning hold up? When you see a phrase, think about ways to shorten it, as in our example, “In order to,” becomes “To.” “Reading it many times,” becomes “re-read.” Now, you’ll get the chance to put this in practice with your own writing.

The Papa Hemingway Writing Challenge

There’s two different flavors of the challenge, depending on how much time you have to spend. You can do them both or pick one. Remember, there’s no right or wrong. Just write.

  • I want to try this, but I don’t have a lot of time. With your new-found editing superpower, go back through your previous blog posts and pick a nice, crufty sentence, one chock full of adverbs, needless words, and airy phrases. Strip it down to the words required for meaning. Keep going until the idea remains, free of adornment.
  • I’ve got the time for a meatier challenge. Hit me. Go back through your blog archives and find a bloated, nasty, air-filled paragraph. Copy it in all its former glory into a new post. Paste it a second time so that you can edit it until it cries for mercy and we can see the strong, shiny, new version below. Strip out the adverbs, replace weak verbs with strong verbs, axe the bloated phrasery that takes up space and yet says nothing.

Editing takes practice. Self-editing can be especially difficult because it’s often hard to see the problems with our own writing. Perseverance pays off — keep at it — the lean and mean prose you produce will be worth the effort. Don’t forget to tag your posts as #DPChallenge.

Looking forward to reading your shiny, new work!

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  1. This challenge is going to be virtually impossible for me, because with only Fifty Words a day I always have to self-edit like Hemingway. Hmm…I need to give this some thought…


    1. I’m sure I don’t do it as well as Papa did, but my Fifty Words don’t go very far otherwise. I love these challenges, I’ll see what I can do…


  2. Just to say, proof-of-the-pudding-wise, how worthwhile it is to cut. Last week my short story Flight came in the top 3 of the after I cut the original version in half – over 5,000 words down to 2,200. The following week I cut another story of over 5000 words to 1500, and thus earned a place in an anthology for unkeen, teen readers with Ransom Publishing. Cutting sharpens the creative focus. It makes for happy readers. And that’s the objective, isn’t it?


  3. I agree with the sample edits except for replacing “many times” with “re-read.”
    To me “re-read” means “read again” (once); it does not connote multiple reads.
    I would have condensed the sample to
    “To understand text, I must read it repeatedly.”
    This is eight words…same as yours. It better conveys the key thought of multiple re-reads.


      1. Actually I can do it in four words.

        “To understand a text, I must re-read it.”
        “Repeated reading increases comprehension.”

        Four words instead of eight but it’s longer on the page! Is it better or worse?

        “Re-reading adds understanding.”

        OK what do I win? 🙂


  4. Good topic, but I probably won’t participate. Even though I don’t always practice this ideal in my blog, it’s old hat for me.

    If I can figure out something interesting to do with it, I’ll change my tune.


  5. I think wordiness makes people sound witty…or like posers. This will be a challenge! How can you be simple AND interesting?


  6. I find that I do this when writing essays for university. I will have a 3000 word limit and I will write 5000 then cut it down, but without removing any of the points, just the useless words. It makes my essays choc-full of good stuff, but no room for waffle! But I’ve never tried it with fiction, yet I suppose the concept is the same! Will have to give this a try 🙂


  7. This reminds me of how I tweet. I like big words and multiple modifiers, but you can’t tweet like that. However, when I edit out too much, my work loses voice. It no longer feels like mine.


    1. I find that Twitter is a fun way to practice editing, just because of the word count. Which — sparks an idea: you could set yourself a stretch goal of meeting a word count — or reducing the word count by a certain percentage — say, 20, 30, 40 or even 50 percent. It’s all about experimenting and having a little fun.


      1. Twitter has been great for me, Little Miss Wordy, even though I initially hated the limitations. I like the word count tip. Off to dig up an old post to edit. Thanks!


  8. “Copy it in all it’s former glory into a new post.” Not meaning to nit-pick, and because this is an advice post for better writing, ‘it’s’ in this sentence should be ‘its’.


  9. Noob here and a gentle hello to all…

    I’d just joined in a few days ago and got to see this post. Hoping to make some friends and please do have a read at my blog.


  10. Oh, this is a tough one! In grad school, I was always more of a Faulkner fan than a Hemingway reader….now I fear my writing has grown bloviated!

    Rewrite: I did like Faulkner. Too much. Hello, Papa!


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