“It’s easier to cut words than add them.”
I don’t recall which high school English teacher uttered this mantra, but I do remember that we were working on term papers that my classmates and I thought were soooooo long. Most of us had a common goal: do the least work possible to earn a decent grade. If the assignment called for 3-5 pages, many would turn in 3 pages. I did. Several times I found myself sitting in front of a glowing computer screen on due date eve needing half a page. If only I’d listened to my wise English teacher, because cutting is indeed much easier than adding, especially when one feels like everything to be said has been said.
This adage applies beyond academic papers that often have imposed length requirements. I’ve had similar experiences while writing poetry and fiction, knowing I need to add more but lacking new words and ideas. These writing experiences reign among my most frustrating, knowing I have a work so near completion and feeling unable to fill in blank space. It isn’t always long writing exercises, either. I’ve had 16 syllables that belong to a haiku and agonized over that final one. That’s when I’m tempted to use filler like unnecessary articles or cheap adverbs.
The best solution sounds simple, the one my English teacher implied: write more than you need. It sounds simple, but think about everything that keeps you from following this advice. My temptations include editing as I type, quitting when my requirements are met, and attention to poetic form. I imagine the first is common among writers who grew up using computers. How many times have you deleted what you just wrote because you weren’t sure if it was worth keeping? Sure, maybe it wasn’t worth keeping that way, but did you lose an important idea or image that could’ve been fixed during editing? Quitting when requirements are met is a classic academic mistake and incredibly lazy. Well, I’ve written 10 pages for my 10-12 page paper, time to tack on a conclusion. The final temptation arises when I’m trying to write a particular form (haiku, sonnet, etc,). I try to overcome this by ignoring, to some extent, my desired form while writing the first draft. If you write everything that you might want to say, it’s easier to meld it into iambic pentameter later than as you go.
So write. Write a lot. Write more than you think you need. It will save you from staring at a blank page the day before your term paper is due or on the last day of NaNoWriMo. It will save you from 16 syllable haiku and 13 1/2 line sonnets. It will help your ideas flow, so that after you edit (cutting the clutter and shaping the gems), you’ll possess the best finished product.