The Best Piece of Writing Advice I Have Received in 2.5 Years

Over 1,000,000 words have flown from these fingers in the past 30 months. Who knows how many it might have been, were it not for these three words:

Bracket unnecessary words.

This is the single greatest piece of writing advice I’ve received. I learned it from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

My writing is much more concise now, but to this day, I find up to 30% of any first-draft sentence can be eliminated.

  • You don’t need to free (up) time. You can just free time.
  • You celebrate (happily) anyways. Just say celebrate.
  • An (old) castle is just a castle. There aren’t any new ones.
  • Saying your friend is (kind of) nice kind of weakens your sentence.
  • Apparently doesn’t mean anything (apparently).
  • A sentence that repeats the previous one is not worth writing.

Here’s how Zinsser explains it in the book (emphasis mine):

Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the authors voice.

My reason for bracketing the students’ superfluous words, instead of crossing them out, was to avoid violating their sacred prose. I wanted to leave the sentence intact for them to analyze. I was saying, “I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won’t be affected. But you decide. Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.

In the early weeks of the term I handed back papers that were festooned with brackets. Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean.

Today many of those students are professional writers, and they tell me, “I still see your brackets — they’re following me through life.”

Thanks to him, I edit my work much more than I used to, and I wish I had time to edit more still.

In writing as in life, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.