As a teacher of gifted children, I often find myself seeking strategies for students who already excel in writing. What can I offer that would teach them to strengthen their craft in ways they might not consider? Some of my students are exceptionally talented; I could easily take notes and learn from THEIR craft. What could I possibly add to their skill set?
One answer to that question lay within my own writing journey. I remember high school, back to the first time I ever made meaningful, purposeful improvement as a writer. That progress ranged across genres: poetry, creative writing, journaling, and, of course…the dreaded essay. If I could capture what it was about that time, the skills I actually learned back then, I could unlock new ideas for my own writing instruction.
The biggest leap was the degree to which my writing tightened. My language became more concise, more powerful. That’s when I realized that my power wasn’t in my writing. It was in my rewriting. And the single-most powerful tool I have for making my writing stronger? OMISSION. When I remove everything that isn’t important or powerful enough to stay, I do myself – and my readers! – two favors:
- Well-chosen, clear writing is more likely to make sense.
- If I say more with less, people are more likely to read.
I now consider omission to be my writing superpower. It’s how I craft everything: poetry, emails, even this very article here. (Even that last sentence! It’s about half as long as when I started.)
So how does that look with students? I’ll share my methods in the hope that some of you folks out there find something interesting, useful, or worth trying.
My lesson began with a demonstration of how I go about paring my writing down. I showed a poem draft, then talked through line by line which words I could omit or strengthen. As the poem went on, students had their own ideas of how to trim it down. I’ll admit: the old and the new were night and day!
As a group, we discussed the words and phrases least likely to pull their weight. Our main areas of focus:
- Removing top offenders: “The,” “And,” “That”
- Trimming adverbs: very, really, completely…
- Verb tense: pay attention to tense, helping verbs
- The power of lists, commas
After that, I asked my kids to think of a particular piece (I allowed for any genre) they felt could use the benefit of omission. The kids partnered up to have at it.
The real test, however, is in the power of the students’ writing. My students did NOT disappoint. Below I’m sharing two examples of student work. The black text is the first draft, and the bolded purple is the new, streamlined text developed collaboratively with a trusted reader.
How about you? Have you taken the skill of omission and “given it a go,” either in your own writing, or with your students? What have been your favorite strategies? Leave a comment below and share your wisdom with our community.
8 thoughts on “My Favorite Writing Hack: Less is More”
Excellent post about omission, Lainie!
This reminds me of what I heard nearly ten years ago when attending my first SCBWI conference: “economy of words.” I was attempting to write a picture book (which I stopped working on back in 2016 since I needed to turn my attention to other things, including, but not limited to, my new son and the manuscript of WELCOME TO WRITING WORKSHOP). I knew that to make it agent-ready, it would need to be 500 words or less. HOLY SCHMOLY. That was hard! I’ve been working on economizing my words ever since.
I’ve talked to Isabelle about economizing words before, but I think that omission might be a better way to discuss it with her. (We’re in the midst of omitting unnecessary words as we edit her Bat Mitzvah speech together.)
Thanks, Lainie, this is so good. I’m hoping to be able to use it with my students in India. When you write in another language it is hard to get the natural flow, without putting in too many ‘the’s’ etc because of the English structure you’ve been taught. I think it may help them to find that ‘less is more’!
Yes. I’ve been doing this kind of revising in my own SOL posts recently–discovering what words I can leave out to tighten up the meaning.
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Thank you! I hadn’t realized until recently how much I rely on that strategy. Glad you’re seeing the benefits for yourself, as well!
There is lots of wisdom herein, Lainie. You are making me rethink many of my SOLSC submissions – I need to use more of an editor’s eye, and ‘cull’ my writing. These students of yours – they are great teachers! Love how that one student said they were reminded of fractions – that is so cool.
Thanks! And I’m glad you noticed what my student said about the process. If I could sum up the way my kids interpret the world, it would be that quote. They’re always making connections about what they’re seeing. They ASTOUND me.
I teach gifted kids, too. One issue I have with them is their tendency to perfectionism. They want it to be perfect the first time. Revision can be painful. I love this idea for paring down the word count, tightening up. Thanks for this. I will be using it very soon.
Ohhh YES! I find that perfectionism creeps in so often – and in so many shades: reluctance to write, over-revision, self-criticism, perception of writers’ block…lots of folks really do struggle. As for this strategy, I’d love to hear how it works for you!