Compression

“To put it another way: having gone about as high up Hemingway Mountain as I could go, having realized that even at my best I could only ever hope to be an acolyte up there, resolving never again to commit the sin of being imitative, I stumbled back down into the valley and came upon a little shit-hill labeled ‘Saunders Mountain.’

“Hmm,” I thought. “It’s so little. And it’s a shit-hill.”

Then again, that was my name on it.

This is a big moment for any artist (this moment of combined triumph and disappointment), when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve. It is less, less than we wanted it to be, and yet it’s more, too—it’s small and a bit pathetic, judged against the work of the great masters, but there it is, all ours.

What we have to do at that point, I think, is go over, sheepishly but boldly, and stand on our shit-hill, and hope it will grow.”
― George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

In his excellent book “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” (I’ve previously recommended in a post here and here), George Saunders teaches his students a cutting exercise…

Take a piece of text and eliminate as many words as you think possible. Then ask yourself if the cutting improves or worsens the text. (He describes the exercise in detail in the Appendix. Get the book and read it. You’ll become a better writer and gain a deeper appreciation for Russian literature.)

Here’s another writing exercise you can do. Maybe even have your kids do as well? (You’ll likely have to bribe them to do any kind of extra academic work)…

Write a three page essay about a topic you care deeply about.

Compress it down to two pages.

Compress it down to one page.

Compress it down to three paragraphs.

Compress it down to one paragraph.

Compress it down to one sentence.

This works especially well if you’re thinking of starting a new business and want to hone your “elevator pitch.”

P.S. – While you’re at it, practice your compression on this blog post. How many words can you eliminate? Send me your thoughts and results!

P.P.S. – Hat tips to Ron for recommending the Saunders book and Bruce for recommending that Little Red Schoolhouse writing class in college.

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