Better, more or less

Several times I’ve mentioned that cleaning up a sentence and making it stronger often results in making it shorter. Shorter isn’t always better, though, especially when you get beyond the individual sentence to consider paragraphs, chapters and entire books. There are times when you need to stretch out and add detail, and there are times when you need to stop dawdling and get to the point.

Today let’s look at a pair of real-life illustrations. First let’s visit the website of Diane Chamberlain to see how she revised part of her 2011 novel, The Midwife’s Confession. She has generously posted excerpts of her first and fifth drafts.

The first draft gives a bare-bones account of how a character named Emerson discovers that her sister, Noelle, has killed herself. Emerson shows up at Noelle’s apartment and instantly suspects that something’s not right. In the first draft, the whole scene takes place in 128 words.

By the fifth draft, a lot has changed. Now the scene is 386 words long, filled with much more description of the apartment and little details that tell us about Noelle too. No wonder Emerson is suspicious: Her sister is messy, but the apartment is all cleaned up. Chamberlain also has shifted from third person in the original draft to first person in the final draft. By doing so, we get to see exactly what’s going on in Emerson’s head.

So we end up with three times as many words as in the first draft, but also a ton of additional information that makes us feel like we’re right beside Emerson as she walks through the apartment.

On the other hand, George Orwell realized that his opening scene in 1984 was too wordy in the original draft. He slimmed it down by nearly a one-fourth, going from the original 293 words to 228. The Fiction Desk explains how some of those choices made it stronger.

When the main character, Winston Smith, notes the time, he originally hears it announced on “a million radios.” That was later changed to “the clocks.” Orwell wanted us to notice the time without making us conjure a needless image of everyone’s radio carrying the message.

In the first draft, Smith doesn’t realize that the electricity in his apartment building has been shut off. The porter sticks his head out into the lobby to explain it all to him. In the final version, the porter doesn’t appear at all and Smith is left alone to confront one of the many posters that announce “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING.”

Whether you are writing a novel or an annual report for stockholders, it’s important to think about how much detail you need to get your points across. Sometimes details add depth. Sometimes they distract us from what we should be paying attention to.

There’s no strict recipe here. You have to try out an approach and see how well it works. Then try adding or subtracting until you get the flavor you want.


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