"Cut one word per sentence. This technique is pure magic."

Contrary to any and all writing rules, I have an occasional fondness for rambling, sometimes churning out prose a couple thousand words long, and, yes, even overusing nefarious adjectives and adverbs. So when it comes to cutting or doing serious edits to my longer work, often, I tremble.

Still, I’ve gotten better since my early days as a reporter, when I’d watch in awe as my copy chief would edit us all with a hatchet, stoically and objectively hacking things down to shape and size without batting an eye.

Which is why I like another former reporter’s manuscript-grooming advice below.

Here’s the latest from Promptly’s Top 20 Tips From WD in 2010 series
(the quote-worthy quips that branded themselves in my mind when we were
creating these magazines throughout the year). A regular prompt follows. Happy hacking!

No. 18: Cutting Catharsis

You can spend lots of time rereading your manuscript and painfully strategizing what hunks to cut, but an excellent way to quickly trim it to size is to cut one word per sentence. This technique is pure magic. As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I got good at cutting excess verbiage early in my writing career. But every so often, for the heck of it, I challenge myself to cut one word per sentence. If I can do that too easily, I know I’ve gotten sloppy.”
—Elizabeth Sims, “10-Minute Fixes to 10 Common Plot Problems,” September 2010 (click here to check the issue out)

* * *

WRITING PROMPT: The Field of Dreams
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a
response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our
occasional around-the-office swag drawings.
you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at
writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

You have a strange dream—and then, as you arrive at work the next day, it seems as if elements from the dream are playing out in reality, scene by scene.

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9 thoughts on “"Cut one word per sentence. This technique is pure magic."

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  4. Dare Gaither

    For once, I welcomed the bored grunt of the security guard.
    Last night’s dream had left me shaken and disoriented.
    I was truly happy to merge with the crowd of sullen faces
    gathered at the elevator. A normal day would cure my lingering unease.

    Relief turned to panic as I stepped from the elevator to see
    Godzilla heading right at me. I desperately punched the button,
    hoping to jump back into the safety of the crowded elevator.
    I was too late. My dream was coming true before my very eyes.

    “Where can I find Beatrice Carlisle?”
    Godzilla sounded much younger than in my dream.

    I squinted at him, willing him to disappear.

    “I have a Godzilla-gram for her birthday.”

    Ah! There was a logical explanation after all.
    My muscles relaxed enough to breathe again.
    “She’s in 412…down the hall to the left.”

    Godzilla saluted with his clawed hand and lumbered
    down the hall. A chorus of squeals and laughter greeted
    his arrival at room 412.

    I chuckled nervously as I entered my own office.
    Just a coincidence.


    A black bird was perched atop my chair.
    His small black eyes were fixed on me with a baleful expression.
    My heart thundered in my ears.
    Poe’s raven had materialized out of thin air to torment me.
    The nightmare continued.
    My dream was becoming my reality.

    “There you are!”
    Gretchen startled me as she crept into the room.
    “Come here, you little imp,” she said, offering her finger to the bird.
    He fluttered past me, dropping a greeting on my jacket.

    “Dudley, shame on you!” Gretchen laughed and dabbed at the mess
    with a tissue. She managed to spread it around with amazing artistry.

    “I brought Dudley in to take him to the vet.” She gave a short laugh.
    “Turns out his appointment is tomorrow. He escaped from his cage
    when I tried to refill his water. ”

    “Nevermore.” Dudley intoned ominously.

    “He’s a mynah bird. He knows 23 words so far.”
    Gretchen beamed with pride.
    “I taught him to say ‘Nevermore’ as a joke.”

    Well, there you go.
    Another logical explanation.

    I opted to leave the room while she secured the bird.
    Out in the hall I was met by Godzilla traipsing through a sea of foam.
    My dream continued to unfold.
    I heard a swoosh as Beatrice emerged from
    her office wielding a fire extinguisher.
    White mist spewed out, covering my shoes.

    “Get lost! And take those damn flowers with you!”
    Apparently Beatrice was aiming for Godzilla.
    I remembered now! Her birthday was yesterday.
    The late Godzilla-gram had only increased her ire.

    Godzilla shuffled toward the elevator as fast as his costume allowed.

    “Wait!” I yelled.

    He turned, clutching the vase of drooping roses.
    If this was my dream, then next should come….
    The eerie glow of emergency lights filled the hallway.
    My dream ended as the power grid failed.

  5. Mark James

    “I don’t think you need a crown of thorns for the video conference, Mr. Carmichael.” I thought he needed Prozac; a double dose.

    He stroked the thorns. “Did you have the cross set up?”

    This was too weird. It was happening just like in my dream. “Right behind your chair.”

    Carmichael shot his arms out to his sides, like he was ready to get nailed to the wall. His head back, eyes closed he said, “Crown me.”

    The circle of metal on his desk looked like rolled up barbed wire. I licked my lips. “We should wait till we go live,” I said. “So you can make sure everyone sees when you put it on.”

    He came closer, his eyes wide, empty of any sanity. “Did the prophet tell you that?”

    I went with it, just like I had in my dream. “Yeah,” I said. “You go on. I’ll bring it.”

    As soon he was out the door, I slammed into his chair, dialed Sheldon, the other half of IT. Before he was done saying hello, I spilled Carmichael’s story. “Yeah. I’m sure they’re real thorns. I’m looking at it,” I said.

    Sheldon was sounding way too calm, the way he did the night the servers crashed. Every minute offline cost the company roughly half a million dollars. “I’m blacking out the conference,” he said.

    I heard him typing. “What did you put in his daisy?”

    The daisy screensaver had started out as a joke. Sheldon said he could send subliminal messages. I bet he couldn’t. Now Carmichael was a walking nuthouse. “You’re not talking to me, Sheldon.”

    His voice came back tight, too controlled. “Get to the conference room.”

    I dropped the phone, grabbed the crown of thorns, ran out of Carmichael’s office.

    The conference room was worse than my dream. The cross had to be over seven feet tall. The man on it had blood dripping down the sides of his face, down his nailed up hands and feet. His eyes rolled up in misery.

    If we went live with that behind him, Japan would pull out, and our stock would dive faster than a meteor. I laid the crown in front of him. “Give me a few minutes.” My palms were sweating. “Let me set up the HRQ frequencies.”

    He wasn’t tech savvy. He couldn’t know I’d just said gibberish. At the far end of the room from him, I fiddled with the laptop, filled the wall screen with his face. “My hammer is silver.” His voice was low, strained. “You simply must go along with this.”

    Whatever he was doing, I didn’t want to know. “Going live in a couple,” I said.

    The countdown clock for the call was under two minutes when Sheldon’s pale face lit the lap top. He blinked too many times. I put on my headset. “I can’t undo the suggestion,” he said. “I moved all the money. Offshore.” He ran both hands through his hair. “Get out of there, Carver. He’s not the one going on the cross.”

    Behind me Carmichael said, “The nails should be long enough. You have such small hands.”

    I saw a flash of silver. I didn’t move fast enough. His hammer caught me in the back of my head. As I was falling, I saw the new cross he’d set up: wooden, empty, waiting.


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