How to write tight

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 17 Comments

Betty bloggingBeing super-concise way is super-hard. In fact, it’s easier to blather on at length than to make a brief, laser-sharp statement.

This ability to write tight is a basic journalistic craft. Even if you’re reading a 7,000-word article, rest assured that if the piece is any good, the journalist who wrote it struggled to make every word count.

Whether I’m blogging, chasing stories for my job, re-arranging furniture in my house, pulling together an outfit, painting a picture or sending an email, it’s all about writing tight — the art of distilling the material at hand down to its most powerful essence.

When I used to teach this stuff to my college journalism students, here’s what I would explain about how to write tight:

Know the subject matter really well. Solid reporting is key. When I’m well-informed, I can express nuances with confidence and have a better handle on ways to cut down the material. But when I’m not sure, I babble.

Don’t get hung up on presenting perfection. There’s always room to polish the material later. Just get the words down, start the painting, try on that shirt with those jeans. Just get started!

Try things out in the real world. I used to force my students to read their stories out loud. I’m reading this post out loud as I write it. Hearing the work instantly reveals bad grammar and boring passages.

Practice, practice, practice. Going at this over and over is the only way to gain experience. Watch yourself grow!


There….that is my whole post for today. It’s 232 words. To be honest? I still prefer a slightly longer post — about 450 words has been feeling right to me lately. But I’m constantly hacking away hundreds of words out of every post. The sense of purging can actually feel pretty good. And now, we’re up to 291 words. :)

P.S. — If you want one more tip for writing tight, check out my post on nut grafs.


Comments 17

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  2. I need to learn the same, whether email or facebook or talking. Amazing the young ones who text 2 words and a symbol and the message is conveyed.

  3. Writing tight is very important in terms of not blathering on, but the number of words should be driven by what is being said. Somethings take longer to explain than others; that’s why editing is key.

  4. Okay, I gots problems doing this. (You’re not surprised.) Even though I’m hyper-aware of the truth of all you’ve written, Betty – and teach it to my classes using virtually the same bullet-points! – I still find myself trying to cram too damn much into that distillation “of the material at hand into its most powerful essence.” (Love that, btw!) This semester’s students are ardent tweeters and have DEMANDED I jump-start my account, so I’m thinking that’ll help.
    Still: as you point out, keeping it tight doesn’t inevitably translate into keeping it short. I’ve observed that some journos and bloggers worship at the altar of “short,” and view this as the hallmark of true professionalism. But on occasion I’ve been present at events they’ve covered, or I’ll know individuals/
    organizations they’ve profiled – and it’s clear to me that their brisk accounts lack scads of subtext, nuance, beauty (or ugliness). Sure, when you’re writing to assigned length, you can’t be expected to include every twist and turn! But somehow you need to nail the story’s emotional truth – or else you haven’t fulfilled the real mission of journalism: to serve the reader. Sometimes that’s impossible to do in a brisk soundbyte. Therein the challenge: keeping it tight, yet keeping it real.

  5. “But when I’m not sure, I babble” – this is SO true for me!! I just write down everything hoping something makes sense. Thank you, as always, for your words of wisdom!

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    Oh, I’m so glad that you all relate! To be honest, I wanted to write so much more on this topic. But then, this post wouldn’t be in the 300 word. And clearly, keeping this post short was informational enough, right?

    Yes, Diana, I learn from texting with young folks. They don’t blab on and on. And when they do, it’s gotta be related to HOT gossip.

    Kelley, totally agree! Some of my most popular posts on this blog are waaaay long ones. But writing tight is good practice for the marathon moments.

    Amantha, Laura and Taylor — thanks for the affirmation. I’ve learned that I don’t owe anyone an explanation. There’s a difference between self-censorship and self-editing. The latter makes us more magnetic and sexy — haha.

    Jenni, big hug to you. Thank you! Maybe I should do more of these little tutorial talks.

    And Viv, thanks for journalistic critique. Btw, you’re not being fair to yourself. You’re very good at this “write tight” stuff. Just look at your Facebook newsfeeds. But I would LOVE to see you on Twitter. it would be entertaining for your fans. :)

    Hey Tony, at least your paying attention! Yeah, I couldn’t resist babbling during that last paragraph.

  7. Mathematical Precision! I recall an instance form college where two roommates were arguing about their thesis. One was a Psych-major and the other Math. The Psych major brought it up saying that he thought the whole thing was “unfair” because he roommates thesis was accepted and his was rejected. “It is not even three pages long and mine is over fifty”. “Well maybe you need to cut out some superfluous crap !”
    One is also reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous speech at a college graduation. The student took so long introducing him that he really didn’t have time to say what he had planned, so he redcuced his whole talk to six words:
    “Never, never, never, never give up.” He then held up the victory sign and sat down.

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  9. “Five paragraphs! Five days!” – Gustave Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet, during the writing of “Madame Bovary”

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