Work Hard at Your Writing—But No Harder Than You Have To

[NOTE: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. —J.D.]

Some years ago, a publisher offered me a two-book contract to write the text for a pair of lavishly illustrated books. The acquisition editor gave me a stack of similar books his company had already published. Looking through the stack, I gauged each book to be about 15,000 words in length. Yet he told me he needed about 35,000 words per book. “Are you sure?” I said. “That seems long.” He assured me that was the number.

I wrote the first book and sent the manuscript in to the managing editor (the acquisition editor had moved on to another publishing house). I had hit the assigned word count practically on the nose — 34,800 words. The managing editor read the manuscript, then emailed me: “The book looks great, Jim. Only problem is it’s way too long. We need you to cut the book down to about 18,000 words.”

I groaned. Relying on the assurances from the acquisition editor, I had written twice as much text as I should have. I spent additional days cutting text I never should have written in the first place, first cutting entire chapters, then sculpting the text paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and word by word. I left half the book on the cutting room floor — but it was a learning experience.

When I began the second book, I slashed the amount of research I did, I wrote 18,000 words, and stopped — done. Most important of all, the second book was better written than the first because it didn’t need to be trimmed with a chainsaw.

The moral of the story: Work hard at your writing, but don’t work harder than you have to. Improve the quality of your writing by eliminating unnecessary work.

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