This week’s lesson from the newsroom comes straight from the law of journalism. Even Stephen King had to deal with this lesson:
Thou shall write lean. Let no words be wasted.
It’s the importance of saying what you must in as few words as possible.
The reason for doing this is because a newspaper is restricted to the amount of space they have with each issue. There has to be a proper ratio of stories (known as copy), pictures, graphics, and advertisements.
Because of this formula, sometimes an article will come out too long to fit in the space available. This has been painfully illustrated to me on more than one occasion, but the first time is embedded in my memory forever…
It was press day and I’d been assigned to write a full-length feature on a timely news item. I busted my butt to get in contact with and interview the subject. Then I agonized over writing an article that would do more than pass editorial inspection by deadline. To this day, I still think it was an article worthy of knocking people’s socks off and I especially remember that there had been some great quotes. (I’m particular about dialogue quotes in my writing.)
As it turns out, there wasn’t enough room for my entire masterpiece. It wasn’t a story that could be held over until the next issue either.
My editor asked me to write it to fit, a term we use at the paper I work at. Essentially, it means I had to rewrite the article. Now, I’ve had to do this hundreds of times since then, but I don’t remember any other articles ever hurting that much.
I felt like crying as I was forced to chop my lovely article into bits.
Okay, so admittedly, this story may not exactly show how newspaper writing can make you a better novelist. Still, there’s an important lesson to be learned about how wasteful we can be with our words sometimes.
I did rewrite that article and the point and all the facts still got across to the readers. All the information was still there. It wasn’t horrible.
When you write, you should say exactly what you need to say in as few words as possible.
There’s a saying that goes: a piece of writing should be exactly as long as it needs to be to get its point across. I’ve heard some say that’s wrong – it should be half that long.
I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. – James Michener
In Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, he describes a conversation between himself and his first editor, John Gould, when he began writing sports for a weekly newspaper.
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” Gould had counseled the young King. “When you rewrite, you’re main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.
King later goes on to advise writer to, “Write with the door closed. Edit with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.”
Editing is a chance to cut the crap and polish your writing until it shines.
Sometimes, less truly is more.
So what’s your take on writing lean?