Tag Archives: how to write better

How is Writing like Adding and Subtracting?


Photo courtesy nathanmac87 @ www.Flickr.com

What’s your approach?  Do you just ad-lib, follow your intuition? Or, do you have a system for generating ideas and recording them, arranging them, and revising them?

I have a hybrid approach.
My approach to writing is really a combination of two approaches: right brain and left brain, creative and imaginative followed by logical and reasoned.  Call it, if you want, free-writing and re-writing. But even more generally, I think in mathematical terms: I call it “adding and subtracting.”

Make every word count.
There’s been a lot of emphasis in recent years on dumping words from your text that aren’t really earning their stay–vague words, empty words, superfluous words–words that do not add to the meaning you want to convey. In other words, what can you take out of your text to make it better? Subtraction. And this is a vital emphasis for sure.

But to me, it’s best to begin with the idea of addition.  Meaning writing do not consist of what we cut out of it but rather first what we add.   Writing is a process of addition.  One idea is recorded, then another is added, and then another.

Discussing the weather.
If I’m waiting in a line at a restaurant and turn to the guy next to me and say, “They’re predicting bad weather tomorrow,” I’ve said something, but not much.

He might respond with, “Like what?”  He wants more information.

So I add some: “Tornadoes.”

“Bad?” He’s still fishing for more.

“Yeah, a lot of them maybe.  And where standing here is 15 mines from Red River. They call it  Tornado Alley.”  And that’s certainly meaningful information, especially if you’ve been in that area of Texas  during tornado season.

Nouns and verbs are important to our sentences, but adjectives and adverbs–when needed–are important too. An adverb is not a bad word, and neither is an adjective.  Both have their place in writing. When to use them is a judgment call, certainly.

Meaning in our writing is captured by association, by comparison, by one idea added to another. Ideas bouncing off of other ideas, colliding, expanding, clarifying.

In this “addition phase” the question is always what to add. And that question has three meaningful versions:

What do I need to add next?

What do I need to add next so that my reader understands me?

And, What do I need to add next so that my reason for writing this piece in the first place is closer to being achieved?

Answer those questions at each key juncture and you’re well on your way to good writing.

“Writing is Re-writing.”
Ever heard that? I have. And I agree with that quote–with one modification. Maybe this captures it: “Writing is putting down words  and then re-writing them.”

The Watercolor Analogy.
When I paint a watercolor, it does me no good to stare at the lovely and expensive piece of watercolor paper.  Planning is good, but at some point I need to make a move, get some color down on that paper to work with. Or I’ll get nowhere toward my goal of a painting.

When I have written something on paper (digital or otherwise), I can begin the next phase, which I generally call “subtraction.”  Because much of re-writing is just that, taking out what I need to do clean up my writing, trim the fat, cut out the dead weight.

One warning.
It’s easy to get wiggy with a subtraction agenda and wind up taking out so much that you achieve a machine like efficiency, so much that your reader has to stumble through  your writing, supplying missing words to make sense of your text.

Sometimes even those nearly meaningless but thoroughly human words, like “really” and “very” and “in fact, ” especially with  today’s conversational style,  add to a reader’s reading pleasure and her ease in getting it.  Even though admittedly they are not the penultimate in a terse and Spartan style.

“Everyone fears the long sentence. Editors fear it. Readers fear it. Most of all, writers fear it…Write what you fear. Until the writer tries to master the long sentence she is no writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better.”
–Roy Peter Clark in his Writing Tools, page 36

The next time you sit down to write.
Try thinking about what you are doing as addition and subtraction.  Build words upon words, adding ideas, until your content is woven like an elegant tapestry.  Then apply your eagle-eye. Remove every word or sentence or paragraph you figure you don’t need.

Just don’t get too carried away.

So how do think about writing when you sit down to do it?