Several years ago, I planted bare-root strawberries at our Mount Vernon house. Purchased at a local feed store, I questioned whether they’d grow since they were nothing more than shriveled foliage with stems attached.
Within weeks of planting, they awoke from their dormancy, producing beautiful foliage, and subsequently delectable strawberries and runners. Last year, there were so many runners, the strawberries were more akin to groundcover than distinct plants. They produced strawberries of varying sizes, which I showed to my neighbor, a weekend farmer who sells his produce at farmer’s markets.
He didn’t mince words. He told me my strawberries was horrible. He then marched over to our garden, explaining the runners weaken the plant, creating smaller and fewer strawberries. He advised me to pull out the runners in the fall, and retain the larger parent plants.
Hesitantly, I took his advice, yanking out hundreds of runners. Months later, I was rewarded with a copious crop of large, succulent strawberries, which I’ve been harvesting for the past few weeks.
Writing is similar. You need to be disciplined about cutting out excess verbiage, and trimming content to ensure your key messages aren’t diluted. It’s hard. Sometimes, you have to discard wonderful passages or completely rewrite a section because it’s too wordy or introduces ideas, which sidetrack and muddle rather than enhance.
To make it easier (or rather less emotional) to weed out superfluous content, and get to the root of a topic, I usually write a first draft, incorporating everything that seems important at the time. I then let it marinate a day or two before I put on my editor’s cap, deleting, combining, reordering, and rewriting until I arrive at a succinct piece.
The editing process doesn’t stop at a second, third or even fourth draft. It’s an on-going process, until you arrive at the best rendition of what you’re communicating. Screenwriter Craig Borten wrote ten different scripts for the movie, The Dallas Buyer’s Club.
Ernest Hemingway, best known for writing The Old Man and the Sea, subscribed to the concept of omission. He explained, “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
Writing is a balancing act between too little – shrived up strawberry starts – and too much – runners, which pull readers in too many different directions, failing to skillfully conveying a story, message, call-to-action, or emotion.