A pair of stilts hatched four chicks down at the lake near my house. I noticed the female sitting on the nest, near where they have previously nested, a few weeks earlier. Then one morning, I saw she was off the nest. Both parents set up a raucous call when I stopped to look. Eventually, I found them; small grey balls of fluff on impossibly long legs.
Back home I wrote about it in my journal – pretty much the paragraph above, except when I wrote the first sentence, I wrote: ‘There is a pair of stilts that has hatched four chicks down at the lake near my house.’ As I was writing, I realised I could delete ‘there is’ and begin instead with ‘a pair of stilts’. In deleting ‘there is’ I also lost ‘that’, so I cut the sentence by three words with no change in meaning but an improvement in readability.
This, along with correcting errors in grammar and style, is the essence of editing. It’s about making writing more readable; more readable generally means fewer words – certainly getting rid of words that don’t add anything to the sentence.
I had the benefit of a writing teacher who went through my work and put brackets around all such superfluous words, teaching me how to tighten my writing. It seems like a small thing, a detail, but as William Zinsser writes in On Writing Well says, the battle is won or lost in the details.
Mark Twain reportedly had a policy of going back over every page when he thought it was finished and cutting a further three words. It’s a policy that evidently served him well. It’s worthwhile adopting if you want to write succinctly.