In one short sentence, Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught one of her law clerks the secret to strong writing. Ginsburg said:
“Never use four words when three will do.”
Ginsburg was a precise editor, says UC Berkeley law professor, Amanda Tyler. Although Tyler worked for Ginsburg in 1999, the two kept in touch and, just weeks ago, Tyler was still exchanging emails with Ginsburg to get RBG’s help on Tyler’s book.
“She was still teaching me about the craft of writing–how important precision is,” Tyler says. “Every word had to count.”
Here are three strategies that made Ginsburg a great writer. These tips will improve your writing, too.
1. Set up constraints.
Writing will fill the space its given.
Attorneys are given 50 pages for their opening briefs at the U.S. Supreme Court. “It’s not necessary to fill the space allotted,” Ginsburg once suggested. “In some cases, it can be said in 20 pages.”
Constraints will improve your writing. The classic example is Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg. At 272 words, the Gettysburg Address took Lincoln just two or three minutes to deliver–with interruptions for applause. A newspaper reporter who covered the speech revealed that Lincoln had worked on the speech for weeks because writing a short speech is harder than writing a long one.
Remember that most presentations start with the written word. Impose limits on how much you write. There’s a reason why all TED Talks are limited to 18 minutes. By placing a time limit on each speaker, the presentation is clearer and more compelling.
Rambling on and on about a subject is easy. Choosing the precise words to make your is difficult.
2. Start writing and edit ruthlessly.
Start writing. You can edit later.
I’ve written ten books. The original draft of my books have 90,000 words or more. The final manuscript must be cut to 70,000 words. Eliminating extraneous information or unnecessary words is easier than adding. That’s why it’s important to just start writing.
Editing comes next. In 1914, British author Arthur Quiller-Couch used a phrase that almost every writer knows today: “murder your darlings.” He meant that good writing requires ruthless editing.
In his book, Writing Tools, writing coach Roy Peter Clark suggests that you cut the big stuff first. For example, Maxwell Perkins edited Thomas Wolf’s work, “manuscripts that could be delivered in a wheelbarrow.” In one famous example, Perkins reduced a four-page passage into six words: “Henry, the oldest, was now thirty.”
Clark says that writers should prune the big limbs first, then shake out the dead leaves. Look for major chunks of content that you don’t need.
3. Read it out loud.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg would often read her opinions out loud to make sure her words sounded clear and compelling. She called it the ‘read aloud’ test.
Reading your words aloud is a good tip. If you run out of breath when reading your sentences, they’re probably too long.
In business writing, most sentences should be short and declarative.
Most sentences that contain more than 25 words are hard to read and difficult to digest and so it’s best to keep each sentence to 15 words or less to help the reader.
The previous sentence contains 33 words, several clauses, and unnecessary words.
Let’s try it again. This time I’ll break the sentence into two and delete several words:
Sentences with more than 25 words are hard to digest. Keep your sentences to 15 words or less.
The two sentences are easier to read because I reduced the word count by 45 percent.
Good writing is hard, but it’s a skill worth building.