The Soul of Wit

scissors, blood, editing

Editing Done (photo:

One of the best career moves I ever made was a freelance gig I designed for myself in which I wrote weekly columns about health policy that I self-syndicated to newspapers. This was back before health issues became a constant drumbeat when few news outlets had a regular health correspondent. I lived in Washington, D.C., I had access to experts and government officials, these topics interested me, and I believed people needed to know more about them. From a content perspective, totally correct; from a business income perspective, hopeless.

I never made much money at it—the largest-circulation paper to pick up the column was the Cleveland Plain-Dealer—but I what I learned was pure gold. Not about health policy. About saying what you have to say in 750 words or less. Medicare, Medicaid, care organization, mental health—these are complicated issues. 750 words (or less). It’s helped my writing every day since. Extra words and long-winded phrases still drive me crazy, and Twitter’s easy.

That makes me the perfect cheerleader for Mandy Wallace’s excellent blog post on “cutting the fluff from your fiction”—though anyone who writes as much as a memo can benefit from at least some of her advice. She links to other helpful resources, and I’d bet you’ll find some pet phrases (I did!) in the appalling catalog of redundant phrases. Interestingly, the first of her “5 powerful techniques” connects to an essay on “Thought” Verbs that definitely will not produce a shorter text, but a more meaningful one, shorter only by elimination of empty words. Another good outcome.