Writers Do it One Word at a Time

No good book is ever too long. No bad book is ever too short.


Hemingway rewrote the last page of For Whom the Bell Tolls 39 times. When someone asked him what the problem was, he replied: “Getting the words right.”

The book that tells how to do this most concisely and that most affects my writing is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, Jr.  The rule on composition that guides my writing is number six: “Omit needless words.”  This is the ultimate rule of writing, because if you eliminate needless words, the only words you have left are those you do need.

As powerful as it is brief, this rule is a testament to the power of less. Your time-starved readers, online and off,  make being relentlessly rigorous about your prose more imperative than ever. It means that:

  • Form is as important as content.
  • Every word you write must justify your readers’ most precious asset: their time.

This timeless, universal rule challenges you to make your writing impeccable. It doesn’t mean that what you write has to be short, only that you must serve your readers well or you’ll lose them faster than ever.

You also have to make your work a pleasure to read by ornamenting it with grace notes—warmth, passion, life, humor, inspiration, and stories that help you achieve your literary goals. The more people you want to reach, the simpler and more enjoyable your prose must be.

Every word you write must pull its own weight both in communicating your message and strengthening its impact.   It’s a disservice to your idea and your readers to present  your work before it is ready.

Agents and editors read for a living. They can tell from the first sentence whether someone can write. The first weak word or idea will make their editorial antennae quiver. If it’s not too serious, they’ll keep reading but with an uneasy, usually justified, dread that enough transgressions will follow to justify a rejection.

Michelangelo believed that his statues were waiting for him inside blocks of marble waiting for him to chip away at until he liberated them. The idea for your book is a block of marble inside of which the best embodiment of your idea is waiting for you to bring it to life. So keep chipping away at your idea until it becomes the reality you want it to be. Only your last draft counts.

Comments and questions welcome.


4 Responses to Writers Do it One Word at a Time

    • Writers are too close to their work to judge it objectively. Join or start a critique group, online or off, that gets together to give each other feedback on their work. Also find potential book buyers, people who know writing and the kind of novel you’re writing, and published novelists. Try to find a devil’s advocate who can combine truth with charity and spot everything that can be improved or removed and show you how to do it. A pricey possibility: a freelance editor who’s worked on books like yours that have been published by houses to which you’d like to sell your book. Good luck!

    • Many thanks for responding. Best of luck with your writing.

  1. Amber says:

    I understand what Hemingway meant. I’m writing a novel and I keep revising it to the point where my eyes are starting to cross.

    I believe I made the mistake of sending out my work before it was ready. After several form rejections I decided I ought to take another look at my novel. I’m glad I did. I realized it wasn’t flowing as well as it ought to. I should be finished going through it in a few weeks and then I plan on submitting to agents again. I refuse to give up. I can do this.

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