Though I grew up with a book constantly in hand and wrote my first novel at age eight, on my first high school English paper I got a D. Apparently I made it to ninth grade without learning the difference between plot and theme. Thinking I already knew so much, I had learned very little. It took that wake-up call from The Pilk (as we all secretly called Ms. Pilkington) to make me realize this. Fast-forward three years and I wrote a fairly brilliant (for high school) paper on symbolism linking six of Hawthorne’s short stories. The only problem? The assignment was to be seven pages. I wrote TWENTY EIGHT.
Now that I’ve taught composition and writing, I think my teacher should have either handed back my giant beast and asked for seven pages or else helped me narrow my focus from the start. What teacher wants to read a paper four times the required length? But she did read it, or at least slapped an A on the front in spite of my excess.
Jeff Goins says that if you can’t say it in five words, you can’t say it in 500. While five seems unnecessarily short, I agree with his point. Often we have tons of unneccesary fat in our writing that can be trimmed away for better, sharper, cleaner content. If you encounter a fabulous editor (holla, Beth Malone), you will experience this, but often we don’t edit our own work well. Our words become precious to us and, like Gollum, we can’t let go. Get brutal and cut them out. (Click to Tweet)
Struggling with this idea? Skim below for my first draft of this post’s opening, which was twice as long. Sure, there are some lovely details, but are any of them needed? Perhaps on a third revision I might graft some back in, but maybe not.
Though I grew up with my nose in a book, I did not learn to write well until high school. I usually avoid trite phrases like “nose in a book,” but in my case it was literal. I have a thing about smelling books, kind of a tic. As almost a reflex, I read while thumbing the latter half of the book in front of my nose, smelling. Before I would buy books, used OR new, I would smell them and sometimes this helped me decide which book to buy. I also read everywhere: in the car, in my room, at the dinner table, while walking, on the bus, in class, during lunch, with a flashlight under covers.
I thought I also knew how to write, but my first big paper on The Old Man and the Sea earned me a D. I think it was the first (and possibly last) D in my life. I remember the flame of a blush rising in my cheeks when The Pilk (as we called Ms. Pilkington) handed me my paper. My mother, always my champion, called The Pilk to complain. Clearly, I was not a D student.
Her explanation was simple: “The assignment was to write about theme. This paper is a summary of plot.”
I realized in that moment that I did not know the difference. I, the girl who read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in fourth grade and had finished all of Stephen King by 7th. Thinking I already knew so much, I learned very little. This humiliation (and the opportunity to re-write my paper) began a journey of really learning to write and to read like a writer.
The culmination of my writing for high school was my junior year, when I wrote a term paper on themes and symbols that tied six of Hawthorne’s short stories together. The assignment was to be seven pages. I wrote TWENTY-EIGHT. I got an A, but now that I have actually taught composition and writing, I think she ought to have either helped me narrow the scope of my paper or else returned the excessive beast and asked me to rewrite it in the assigned seven pages.
Long, isn’t it? Did you find yourself skimming? That is the problem with overlong content: our words lose impact because they are not being read.(Click to Tweet)
One study has shown that long content gets shared more, but people tend to read only 28% of words in a post. (Read more in this Buffer article.) You can break up long content with subheadings and bold text and bullet points and lists and images, but first we should try to pare down our words to the very necessary.
This week, rather than giving you an optional prompt, link up any post. Any post that you have pared down to 500 words or less, that is. I know! I know. That can be really difficult to do. And we shouldn’t always aim for short content. The goal of this exercise is to help you learn to trim the fat from your own work.
Whether you’re new or returning to the Not So (Small) Stories linkup, a few ground rules:
-Link back to this post. There is code in the sidebar for the image or you use a text link. I’m cool either way.
-Read the other posts. For now, we are small enough for this luxury. Even if it takes you a week, read and comment. If you love something, share! This helps us be more of a community than a link dump.
-Any genre is welcome other than erotica. That’s just not my jam. If you write fiction, put a note at the top so we know what we’re diving into in case we aren’t familiar with your blog.
Want to catch up on more Not So (Small) Stories?
Fourth Edition- a must-read post
Seventh Edition- your personal blog
Eighth Edition- drafting & being brave
Ninth Edition- signs of growth
Tenth Edition- writing whether easy or hard