Kill Your Darlings with Concise Writing

“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

-Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald

Hemingway was known for concise writing. Even his advice to fellow writers was brief.  Although Hemingway lived and wrote in a different time period, his advice still applies—especially to blog writing.

Merriam-Webster defines concise as “free from all elaboration and superfluous detail.”  Your blog writing should provide immense amounts of value in a 500-1000 word article. Concise writing is the perfect way to do this.

Succinct blog posts can help you stand out in the crowded digital space.  More than half your readers will read your work for 15 seconds or less.  And, if they stick around, they’ll only read 50% of your post or less. This gives you limited space to accomplish big goals (i.e. generate sales, establish authority, drive traffic, etc.).

The more concise you are, the more likely you are to seize your audience and reach your objective.

Kill your darlings

The phrase “kill your darlings” has been attributed to several great writers—Eudora Welty, Anton Chekov, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsberg, and even Stephen King.  But all these writers were quoting Arthur Quiller-Couch, who first used the saying in the early 1900s during a series of Cambridge lectures, “On the Art of Writing.”

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings,” he wrote. The phrase has evolved, and kill eventually replaced murder, likely for the staccato, startling beat of “kill.”

Your darlings are those sentences, paragraphs, or phrases you’re most proud of.  You’re destined to save them, regardless of whether they enhance the overall quality of your writing or not.  Killing your darlings is the process of removing those lines that you love but don’t contribute to the finished piece. It can be painful and personal, but it’s an unfortunate requisite for effective, concise writing.

How to write concisely

The road to concise writing is different for every writer.  Killing your darlings will get easier with time, and you’ll find the method that works best. To get started, here are a few suggestions:

1. Use a red pen: The red pen editing process is an easy way to visualize what is and isn’t working in your piece. Print out your work, and manually edit. I like using a red pen because it boldly shows your mistakes. When you look at your pages, you’ll immediately see where you should focus your efforts. If you prefer to stay digital, use functions like MS Word’s “track changes” button or Google Docs’ Suggestion mode.

2. Cut 1/3 of your words: With most blog posts, you’re working with a set word count (i.e. 800 words).  If you write exactly 800 words, you’ll come up short once you start editing.  But, if you write 1500 words, you’ll have plenty to pare down.  Writing more than what’s required helps you get all your ideas down on paper.  Then, as you start editing, you should cut roughly 1/3 of what you’ve written to get to the “meat” of the essay. You’ll find that you only have room to keep the strongest sentences.

3. Remove the introduction: The first few lines of your post should grab your reader and convince them to keep reading. The longer the intro, the more likely you are to lose your audience. Try cutting the introduction completely. How does this affect your piece? Does your writing become more engaging? This will help you find a logical, interesting beginning that drops your reader right into the action.

4. Reduce repetition: Avoid using multiple sentences that say the same thing. For example: You should use concise writing to improve your blog posts. Your blog posts are stronger when they’re more concise. Both sentences have the same topic. Even if they’re separated in the blog post, eliminate one. The same goes for repetitive words. Example: He was a rude, insensitive, and nasty person. Instead, try: He was boorish. You maintain your original meaning in fewer words.

5. Cut adverbs: Instead of adverbs, opt for more robust verbs. Instead of very nice, use generous. Keeping your diction conversational yet strong will help to avoid excessive use of adverbs.  You can consult a thesaurus to help find more powerful words that pack a punch in a shorter space.

6. Summarize: Summarize the theme or major takeaway from each section of your writing in one phrase or sentence.  You should cut or move any sentences that aren’t related to the topic of that section.

Your Turn

  • Write a new blog post, either for your own business or for a client. Write 30% more than what’s required. (Multiply the required word count by 0.3.)

  • After writing, let the piece sit for a few hours.

  • Return to it with a red pen. Cut the intro and see what happens. Then, cut a third of your words and see what changes. Next, cut out all adverbs (and change verbs as needed). How does the piece change?

  • Compare both copies of your work.  Which draft is clearer and more suitable for your audience?

Allison Hess