Write Less, Not More: How to Slice and Dice Your Content

One of my favorite “essays on writing” is by Anne Lamott. When I read it in college, it forever changed the way I approached the craft. A decade later, it’s still having a profound effect on me.

Slice and dice your content
Photo Credit: LarimdaME via Compfight cc

Lamott’s thesis is simple: All first drafts suck, so get it over with. The point is to dismiss the myth that says you can write something amazing on your first attempt or that you should even attempt doing so. Such an approach removes the mysticism of writing and relieves the pressure to pump out a piece of pure genius at the start.

I think we need more of that.

Most writers want to be geniuses. There’s no question about it. Writers, at least the ones I know, want to be remembered for their words; they want to leave a legacy. But very few believe a dull, drawn-out process will get them there. Ironically, that’s precisely what it takes to get your name listed in the annals of history.

You have to do the work.

When it comes to writing, I am the world’s least patient person. I want everything I write to be amazing now, not later. But here’s what I’m learning: Genius is something very simple but not easy. It’s less a result of inspiration and more a byproduct of effort.

So what does that look like, practically?

How to get your words remembered

Do the sayings of Confucius, Emerson, and Jesus remain with us today because they’re long and exhaustive, or because they’re concise and profound? The latter, of course. History remembers our words not for how much we said, but for the weight of what we said.

Take the Gettysburg Address, for example. One of the most famous speeches in American history, this brief oration clocks in at just under five minutes. Initially, Lincoln was criticized for his brevity (at a time when the length of a speech was often equated with quality). But over a century later, most Americans can easily quote the iconic beginning:

Four score and seven years ago…

Think of every famous movie line, political speech, and quote you’ve ever heard. Why did it stick with you? Was it because of the length of the content? Usually not. Great communicators present their points in the most concise and challenging way possible. They rid themselves of any distractions that interfere with the core message.

I want to be that kind of writer, the kind that cuts the fluff and focuses on the meat of what I have to say.  And the only way to do it is to write a terrible first draft.

Where to begin

You can’t edit anything until you have a first draft. I don’t put a lot of stock into spurts of inspiration or sudden strokes of genius. For me, “genius” is the stuff that happens over time, a result of the long, hard process of consistently showing up to do your work.

Sure, you might stumble upon some random nugget at three a.m. But what will take it from inspired to published? Even genius needs a process to purify raw ideas into complete concepts.

Most successful writers go through a rigorous process of shaping and reshaping their content before they have something worth sharing. How do they do this? They write every day. They share their work with a friend. They edit, tweak, and ship.

So here’s what you need to do:

  1. Commit to writing. Something, anything. Maybe it’s just a sentence or the title to your next blog post. But get it down. Don’t worry about quality or even quantity. Just write.
  2. Write to get it out of your brain and onto paper (or screen). Do it now.
  3. Start slicing and dicing, cutting and chopping until what you have looks nothing like what you started with. But that’s okay because what you started with was a really bad first draft.

The bottom line is this: Write less, not more. In order to do this, ironically, you will write more than you ever thought you should. And then you will kill your darlings. It’s all part of the process. Slicing down to only the essentials is, after all, how you get to genius.

So what’re you waiting for? Grab a pen and get to work. And don’t forget that genius is more about process than epiphany.

How have you learned to slice and dice your content to get down to your own genius? Share in the comments.

54 thoughts on “Write Less, Not More: How to Slice and Dice Your Content

  1. I really look forward to reading your posts! There I wrote something – does that count?

    Seriously, though, I’m off to my food blog to jot down some thoughts on pink lemonade. Thanks for the kick in the pants and the permission not to get it just right the first time.

  2. Really like the look of your problems. It’s very special, unlike the conventional thinking, you have to look in a particular way and I am really very much impressed

  3. Jeff.
    Re: “You need to commit to writing something — anything — today….”
    Once upon a time, when I was about 12 years old, I asked my father “How do I become a writer?” His reply with a smile – “Start writing – anything, just start, dash it off…”

  4. Jeff, I often have times of inspiration, but that isn’t when I actually write. I just jot the ideas that come from the inspiration down in my notebook. Then I sit down and work later, which where the writing really happens. I remember my first blog posts that I ever wrote and I thought I needed to write these 1,000 to 2,000 word pieces. Now, I shoot for 500 words or less. If I can’t say it in that space, I probably can’t with more words.

  5. Hi Jeff, long time no see. Shitting first drafts, slicing and dicing…coming up. Writing in the NaNoWriMo challenge this month. My word count so far 30 000 of 50 000 down on ‘paper’. You have to write more in the beginning to be able to write less in the end.

  6. My best stuff is when I just write – a lot – and then let it sit for a bit. Then edit, edit, edit. If I cut just a little more than I am comfortable with, I know I’m getting closer to getting it right. 🙂

  7. I did the Faithwriters.com Writing Challenge every week for sixteen months straight. The word count limit was 750. I learned how to write tight, but made it a point to go over the word count on my first draft. I knew in the end, if I had to lop off 200 words, I would have a much better story than if I started with 750 and let wordy-ness slide. Best writing exercise I could have done as a newbie.

  8. Slice, dice, and into the slow cooker. Let words simmer and transform from “Amazing!” to “Yikes-still needs tweaking!”
    A timely reminder and nudge. Thanks!

  9. Great post, Jeff. I enjoyed a writer’s retreat this weekend with my writer’s group where we put in 11 hours on our projects.
    I thought I’d let you know that “murder your darlings” did not originate with Stephen King, however. I’m reading the May/June 2013 Writer’s Digest (I’m always a few months behind) and there is an article that mentions Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote that phrase as part of a longer quote.
    I’ve enjoyed your last few posts, very inspiring, keep it up!

  10. Great advice Jeff. Getting words onto paper and then slicing and dicing them to get them where they need to be: this summarizes the process of writing. I once wrote a weekly travel column with an limit of 300 words per column. This was the best lesson for me; how to say what I wanted to say in a clear and concise manner, it truly made me a better writer. Also, I love Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird! Always enjoy your posts.

  11. Love your advice. I was just wondering how cutting a draft down is even possible with my lengthy sentences. I keep reminding myself, “You’re not writing all your thoughts, just the simple and concise ones.”
    Thanks for the help and motivation to get started!

  12. Perhaps process is how you get to epiphany. I find that whenever I have one, it’s not really a brand new idea. It’s a hundred ideas that I’ve been working with over months that finally coalesce into one complete understanding of something profound. It takes that working (or process) to get there; it doesn’t come as a lightning bolt out of nowhere.

      1. Thanks. I’ve had that idea for awhile and been trying to figure out how to write about it. Your post spurred me on, and I just finished a blog post with my thoughts about epiphany. So thanks for your blog post, and your question that got me started!

  13. Cut out all the repetition. If you need to clarify something, do it in one sentence, not two or three. I like to ask the question “What does this sentence ACTUALLY say?” If I don’t like the answer, it’s gone.

    This makes your message clearer and also respects the reader.

  14. Great post.

    I’m one of those writers. I want everything I write to be genius, but I want it to happen automatically, not with a ton of effort.

    This is a great reminder that that’s not how it works.


  15. Jeff, you are reading my mind. I
    started something new recently. I want to give each one of my post extra hour
    or two. But I never thought about slicing. That is awesome to know. I will work
    on cutting out extra fats, probably no repetition at all. Thanks Jeff.

  16. When I first started writing I would spend so much time editing instead of finishing, I didn’t get much written. Now I just write and edit later, it has made me a far more productive writer.

  17. I, um, don’t really write like that. 😉

    I mean, I do write first drafts. Generally, I put out about 1000-1500 words per hour. Sometimes as little as 800, on rare occasions I blast out 2000 or so. But I don’t EVER aim for a “rough” draft or “vomit draft”. My first draft is probably about 95% or so the same as the final published copy is going to be. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less, but the trend is upward.

    I also don’t revise my own work before someone else has seen it. Like, ever. I might go back and clean up a typo or some obvious error I made. But I don’t do any sort of deep revision until SOMEONE else has seen it: an editor, a beta reader, someone. Why I do this: my first draft is *already* the best work my creative mind can produce. Any further refinements I do are rather hit or miss. I might improve the work. I might trash it. And I question whether writers’ editing voices are as good at producing a good story as their creative voices are.

    In my experience, they’re not. I’ve seen many novice writers take a decent story and ruin it through revision. And most long-term writers I know, even those who send work to major publishers, don’t do any serious revision before sending off the work.

    Heinlein stated it succinctly:

    1. You must write.
    2. You must finish what you write.
    3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
    4. You must put the work on the market.
    5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

    You might modify rule #5 today to reflect the way indie publishing has shaped our profession. But the rest are as valid today as they were seventy years ago.

  18. Mr. Goins,

    My favorite book by Anne Lamott is “Bird by Bird.”
    Thank you for the encouragement to write a bad first draft. I keep trying to edit before my memoir is even written. Today I will write one bird.

    all the best,
    Love Pooh

  19. My first draft is almost an unrestrained stream of consciousness. By the third paragraph, I may already have decided to ditch the first two paragraphs and move forward with the idea that just appeared on the screen. No pressure that way on the first draft. Less writer’s block. Wrote over 1,000 words in a first draft the other day. Ended up as a 300 word post. (“The in-Between” is a great book! It get’s my “Whole Book” award, meaning once i started reading I couldn’t stop until I finished the whole thing! )

  20. Thank you for this article it’s great advice for the newbie trying to create great content consistently. I always get such great information from you blog.

  21. In one of your lessons you talked about how we dummy down our audience by repeating things. That thought has stayed with me so as I’m reading I’m asking myself, “Didn’t I already say that?” And if the answer is yes, it’s out of there.

    I also look for weak words and cut them out as well. I have seen a piece get stronger as it got shorter. I also used to make the mistake of thinking I could edit as I wrote. This is a fallacy because what I’m doing is preventing a lot of words from ever making it out on the paper by doing this. Instead I let the words flow and then I shave away.

  22. Thank you so much for writing about this. Seriously, it’s brilliant. I struggle so much with my first draft on almost every post. A lot of the time I’ll have to walk away for a while just so that I don’t lose my mind. It’s been an ongoing cycle:

    Pre-first draft: Inspiration and motivation.
    During first draft: Annoyance and more annoyance.
    Post-first draft: Bliss and happiness.

    Seeing how many people can relate to this really helps. My next shitty first draft is on it’s way and I couldn’t be happier. Thanks again, Jeff!

  23. This is great advice – particularly your point about making sure you write something every day. I’ve found the best way is to set aside some sacred writing time, making it one of my number one priorities. My personal experience is that the more I write, the more I want to – it becomes quite addictive.

    I’m still struggling with the “not getting it perfect first time around” bit, as I’m a perfectionist and keep having to tell my editor to take a break when I’m writing an initial draft, but the more I write I find the easier it gets to do that. There’s a great freedom, too, in knowing that a crappy first draft is ok – and much better than no draft at all! However, I think I’ll always do a certain amount of editing as I go along – unlike proofreading, I feel editing is part and parcel of the creative process and I’m not sure how realistic it is to put your editor completely to one side while you’re writing. I guess the trick is to make sure it doesn’t stifle your progress while you’re trying to get an initial draft off the ground.

    I did a blog post a while back about whether or not you should edit as you write, and from the responses I received it’s apparent that people have different attitudes to this. There are some hard-liners who think you shouldn’t edit at all, whereas others thought there was nothing wrong with it. I guess we all have to figure out our own way of working – Kevin’s comment seems to confirm that.

  24. Hey Jeff, thank you for the post. It’s a wonderful reminder that not everything can be perfect in one shot, and thus the need to practice, either in writing or chopping off the words. Need to have it embedded in my mind in case I get too cocky trying to do a perfect one-shot writing.

  25. I could read this article over and over again, because it’s the truth. We tend to forget that “less is more.” Your work is great, I love it.

  26. The Great John Irving said in an interview once, “I’m not a great writer, but I sure can revise.” Keep polishing your writing until it shines.

  27. Thank you, Jeff! As often as I’ve heard the comment that first drafts are always horrible, I still need to be reminded.

    Like some of the other commenters, I often try to revise as I write and have to force myself to just vomit the words onto the page. When I allow myself to just spew words, sentences, and ideas, I end up with much stronger material to play with. When I try to edit as I write, I end up putting myself in a box that is difficult to get out of. I may have to begin labelling my first drafts as “Vomit Draft”. 🙂

  28. “…chopping until what you have looks nothing like what you started with.”
    I’m learning that this is the fun. This is where we writers uncover our own ideas. Usually, it’s in revising that I have my aha moments, either figuring out what it was I really wanted to say in the first place, or discovering a truth (for myself) on new level. Thanks, Jeff!

  29. “..genius is more about process than epiphany.” Thanks for a great reminder to keep showing up to do the work of writing. It brings to mind they saying that “there is no such thing as good writing. There’s only good rewriting.” Thanks Jeff!

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