Good writing practice

I had to do something horrible today. I had to take a 2,900-word thesis proposal and squeeze it into a funding application form with a 1,500-word limit. Painful does’t even begin to describe the experience. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the original proposal was about 3,500 words before I edited, trimmed and sacrificed content to get it down to the “two sides of A4 paper” limit imposed at the first stage of the application process. I already felt like substantive information had been lost, so cutting out another 1,400 words felt very very wrong.

“How can I adequately relay the pertinent information in 1,500 words? How can 1,500 words be better, or even as good as 2,900?” I asked myself this over and over as I snipped, and snipped, and snipped. Literally – I even went through and made sure that any reference with two authors used an & sign instead of the word ‘and’ in order to save the two extra characters. They really do add up.

The answer to the above question is the whole point of this post. While I miss my elucidating examples and florid language, the 1,500-word proposal does all of the same things as the 2,900-word proposal did, and while it pains me to admit it, it probably does it better. An example might make this more apparent. This sentence came from the Aims section, “… the utilising of quantitative survey analysis to assist in assessing children’s wellbeing in a culturally relativistic manner is both innovative and necessary. This is because the rich qualitative data inherent to anthropological research is notoriously difficult to utilise for policy reform and social change.” It became “Using quantitative methods to help assess children’s wellbeing is both innovative and necessary because the rich qualitative data inherent to anthropological research is difficult to use for policy reform and social change.” I could probably have taken the ‘inherently’ out and trimmed it just that much more.

I like the first sentence. I like the way it reads, but the second is sharper. The second is both a better sentence, and a better fit to purpose. How does this relate to you the reader? Well, I put to you that the extreme editing necessary for my thesis funding application is not that different from that necessitated by the traditional publishing industry.

I recently followed a forum discussion in which the original poster complained of being criticised for using long, comma and clause laden sentences. I felt her pain. I am that writer too. I also agreed whole-heartedly with the posters who reminded her that there is a time and place for different writing styles. You wouldn’t write a business brief in hyperbole, and a bullet-pointed novel wouldn’t sell many copies (though I am tempted to try it). The unfortunate fact is modern best sellers often require short punchy sentences to keep the reader interested. Not all of them. Historical fiction often allows authors to retain a slow, languid pace, but by and large quick reads sell books.

When the thread moved on to publishability being dictated by digital formatting requirements  such as short sentences and paragraphs designed to fit small screens my blood boiled. This seems instinctively wrong somehow. But isn’t it the same argument? As much as I dislike it, I have to think that it is. It is another example of making your writing fit for purpose. Does this mean that a lot of good writers will never be picked up by traditional publishers because they are not willing or able to conform to the industry’s stodgy rules of literary and stylising  formating? Yes. Is this too bad? Yes, but it is also a reality.

Thus, to bring this back to my original task of fitting the substance of 2,900 words into 1,500, I have a challenge for you. First, choose your camp. If you write solely for the personal joy of it, or you are satisfied with being self-published, write anything you want and to hell with everyone else. But if you aspire to sell your books to the traditional publishers, just as I hope to sell my PhD proposal to the funding board, be a professional. Look at the industry standards and make your writing fit to purpose.

For those in the second camp the real work begins now. Take out your literary shears and snip away. Take out every unnecessary word, no matter how much you like it. Set a ridiculously low word count and pair the whole thing down to the bare bones. See what you think when you look at it. The process is incredibly painful, but I bet you won’t hate the end result as much as you think you will. I have to wonder if this isn’t the very reason my finding board set two different limits within the same application process, thereby forcing applicants to distill their work. I both love and hate them for this.

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