Concentration, Not Reduction

by Michael Schechter on November 27, 2012

While Randy is on hiatus recovering from a writing-induced ailment, some friends are taking up the slack. Today’s post is by Michael Schechter.

There is inherent loss in just reducing a product in size. We took the time to go back to the beginning and design a product that was a concentration of, not a reduction of, the original.

- Jony Ive (Senior Vice President, Industrial Design at Apple)

I was recently given a writing assignment (I’ll give you one guess who gave it to me). I was provided with a single sentence and told to turn it into 1000 words. I wrote 1500. My industriousness did not go over well…

The piece was received well enough, but, along with some helpful feedback, I was told that my 500 words of excess would come with a cost. I would have to do it again and this time I only had 500 words (although I was allowed to choose my own starting sentence, so there was that…).

While I’m a highly iterative writer, I rarely rewrite something completely. I tend to plop my words down and then focus on shaping and reshaping it until my initial assignment or idea takes shape. So that’s what I did. I eliminated what I could while attempting to clarify my thoughts.

But frankly, the end result was crap. I couldn’t achieve my outcome by reduction. I had to follow the wise words of Jony Ive. I had to go back to the beginning and write a piece that was a concentration of the original.

The initial reduction had proved useful: by forcing myself to cut the unimportant, the essential began to show itself. I was able to see clearly what even I didn’t realize that I was trying to say. The end result just hadn’t been particularly readable. So, I started again, this time with only the essential in mind. I scrapped every last word of the original and only kept in mind what I really wanted to say. What emerged was 499 words that packed twice the impact of three times the words (at least in my estimation).

I’m always afraid to lose work. It’s one part trusting my initial instincts and an equal measure of laziness. Had I kept working, I know I could have made the reduction readable. I could have arrived at a point where I was happy enough to hand in my assignment. But I know that I never would have wound up with what I had without rethinking everything, starting from scratch and finding that concentration. It not only improved the piece, it provided clarity. To find that, I had to do more than rethink my words; I had to reconsider my approach.

When was the last time you had to cut your work so deeply? Did it lose all of its meaning in the reduction or did you start again and end up with something better?

The Concentration, Not Reduction by Michael Schechter, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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