When it’s OK to drown puppies

Back in the days before the internet there were space considerations. Word counts were limited by column inches and writers needed more discretion when it came to what they included in their stories.

With the abundance of blogs and online magazines to get published there’s a lot more freedom to pile on the words. While the space may be available, there is something to the idea of restraint.

When I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz the advisor for the school newspaper Conn Hallinan always had a phrase when it came to editing stories. He’d always tell us “sometimes you just have to drown a few puppies.” No, he’s not saying kill a few animals in our quest for good writing, but to save the audience from an infatuation with our own words.

Having all those words to burn doesn’t mean its a licence to go crazy. In fact, given the short attention span of readers these days, it behooves any published writer to be even more discerning with their words.

Print journalists are used to cutting their stories, it’s just the nature of working with limited space, but being economical  is a practical skill for all writers regardless of platform.

There’s a reason cutting stories is akin to slaughtering cute animals. Writers ply their trade with words and it isn’t easy to part with them given the  thought and consideration it took to put them on the page. That cool idea, that lovely turn of phrase sometimes looks like an abandoned puppy with really big eyes and a cute face. Soon hitting the delete key tends to feel like taking a hatchet to your arm.

The antidote to that is to keep in mind that what looks like a puppy to you may not look like a puppy to another person that may be reading it. Keep in mind that we serve a set of readers with an attention span shortened by television and the internet. Short attention span readers are turned off by long sprawling stories that fail to make their point right away.

Whether it is a newspaper, blog or that trendy online magazine concise and entertaining writing is absolutely necessary. The responsibility falls on the writer to accommodate the audience or risk losing them halfway through your story.

Part of serving your audience means being ruthless and efficient with your words. It means making the tough decisions about what is absolutely necessary. It means drowning a few puppies for the greater good of your writing.

Here is some advice on “drowning puppies”:

Be aware of size and scope- The idea of “concise and entertaining writing” depends on the size and scope of the project. A breaking news story will have different needs than a feature story or a review for example.

For freelancers, it’s always a good to be aware of what an editor expects out of you. It’s always good to set guidelines for length ahead of time so that you have something to shoot for when it comes to writing and editing.

Prioritize your infomation- Be clear about the ‘big ideas’ that are going into your story ahead of time. Ask yourself “what is the most important thing a reader should come away with?’ then put that front and center. Knowing what to keep helps you decide what needs to be taken out.

The 10 percent rule- This works best with longer stories, but a good principle to live by. The idea is to shave 10 percent of the total word count after you are done. This will force you to look for places that need to be tightened up.

The best way to do this is to take a broad overview first and look for ideas that may have been repeated unnecessarily. Then go paragraph by paragraph with a double space in between. Try to cut out a word or two for each graph by rephrasing sentences or taking out repeated words.

After you are done, repeat until you hit the quota.

Faces of your audience- Keep perspective on your story and realize exactly who you are writing for. Be a role player by reading your stories from different perspectives. Read it once as yourself, another as an imagined reader and a third time as your worst critic.

Doing this will be like looking at your story with a fresh eyes. You may find some things that need to be taken out.

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