Writing Lessons: “Now take what you’ve written and cut it in half—without losing a single fact.”

By Sherri Dalphonse

My most memorable lesson on writing: I was in a writing class, at Syracuse University, in which the professor asked us all to file a news story—let’s say it was 1,000 words. When we arrived at class, our articles in hand, the professor said—without looking at a single paper: “Now take what you’ve written and cut it in half—without losing a single fact.”

There were moans and gasps—how could we cut our stories by half without losing a thing? Back at my dorm-room desk, I crossed out most of the transitions, adjectives, and extraneous sentences until the word count hit 500.

At the next class, again the professor announced: “Now cut your piece in half again. Without losing a thing.” More consternation and hand-wringing. Is this what editors did to writers?

Out came almost all the remaining transitions and adverbs. So much for the (no doubt) flowery prose I had slaved over. I had to get to the point. And darned if the exercise didn’t pay off: What remained were just the facts, in a clear, concise bit of writing that forced me to use the strongest verbs and nouns.

The exercise would serve me well, when I later had an editor who was not a fan of adverbs, adjectives, and transitions.

Sherri Dalphonse is executive editor of the Washingtonian magazine. She wrote this in October 2013 when she was a senior editor of the magazine and had recently won a Gold Medal in writing from the City and Regional Magazine Association for her article “Dustin and Me,” about a real-life Rain Man as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the movie.

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