Best writing advice I ever got: Make every word count
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
I’ve started asking that question of as many writers as I can reach, and I’m going to publish their answers in this space. Yogi Berra said you can learn a lot by watching. You can learn a lot by listening too, so I’m hoping we can learn at least a little from the advice that good writers have taken to heart.
I haven’t heard back from any good writers yet, so I’ll kick things off with the next best thing, the best advice I ever got about writing:
Make every word count.
That advice, which I got about 20 years ago, wasn’t about sportswriting or any other kind of journalism. It was about screenwriting. But I think it applies to every kind of writing there is.
I’d somehow let my friend and former journalism-school classmate Dan Todd talk me into co-writing a screenplay with him. He’d gotten a job working on a movie, and he called me as I worked the night copy desk at the San Francisco Examiner to say that he and I could write a better script than the one for this in-production flick, and when could I start.
Dan came from a movie-business family — his grandfather was Mike Todd, who produced “Around the World in Eighty Days” and was husband No. 3 for Elizabeth Taylor — and his dad, Mike Todd Jr., had worked for the elder Todd and later produced the first movie in Smell-o-Vision. Heady stuff.
I’d never been interested in writing movies, but I thought this might be a good writing exercise that could somehow lead to meeting Winona Ryder, so I bit. We wrote two screenplays over the next year or so. Dan showed the first to his dad, who he said was then a TV producer in Ireland. I don’t remember much about his critique except that it was very sharp, and it included those four words: Make every word count.
Every single word, Todd said, had to do a job. It had to move the plot forward, develop character or establish setting. Or better yet, do more than one of those things.
I’d been thinking of a screenplay as this enormous thing — 100 pages or more — that gave me room to roam. The longest thing I’d ever written before that was a magazine article of maybe 5,000 words, maybe 20 pages of typescript. Todd took one look at our meandering script and disabused me of that notion.
Of course every word has to pull its weight. Why else would it be there? Why have a word in there if it wasn’t accomplishing something? True for a haiku, true for an encyclopedia, true for everything in between.
I still think about that every time I start typing. It’s one of the two or three most common things I say to Bleacher Report writers I work with: Look at every word in your piece. Ask yourself: Is this word pulling its weight? If I took it out, would my piece suffer?
Neither of our screenplays ever came close to selling and I never met Winona Ryder. I also never got a more valuable writing lesson.