Chiseling words: Writing as sculpture

OUR WORLD IS BURSTING at the seams with ever more text. Good writing provides relief from this inflationary pressure: Like a sculpture, a strong text will surface thanks to a subtractive process, as its author chips away at surplus material, cutting things down to their core.

The first layers to discard concern the authors’ own obligations and ambitions. Writers must make space in their lives for time, concentration, and even isolation, putting aside everything that obstructs clear thinking. That includes, crucially, any hopes of sounding brilliant by giving precedence to style. Good writing means downsizing our ego, so that readers may connect more directly with the topic.  

Narrowing down a subject is also subtractive: The key decision is what you will not write about. What topic, among the many you may know about, are you best suited to tackle? Of all the angles you could take, which works best? What data, within the mass of information at your disposal, is essential to make your point? Even outlining your work involves picking one of several analytic or narrative strategies available to you. All these choices carve out a rough shape you will now put your chisel to. 

This is when you get into events, characters, and arguments, which at first assume an indistinct form. They will become neat and clear not by saying everything that can be said about them, but on the contrary by paring them down to their most evocative facets. This is why authors must chop off unnecessary ornamentation: pointless examples, rambling quotes, tangential discussions, and stylistic flourishes. What remains gives your thoughts their most complete and precise contour.

Fine-tuning your work takes this process further, by identifying and removing material that undermines your arguments: falsehoods, inconsistencies, and ambiguities for example. Line-editing shaves off yet another layer. You trim long sentences, sharpen your syntax, and delete repetitions. Likewise, jargon, weak verbs, bland adjectives, clichés, and typos must all go. This final round of proofing is much like polishing a stone—giving a text that smoothness we call flow. 

Inexperienced writers tend to take writing from the wrong end, fast-forwarding to final touches—as if they were polishing a boulder before starting to chip away at it. Obsession with style ensures that your prose will stay shapeless, your arguments buried in a shiny mass of raw material.  

The value of your work lies in the volume you discard to keep only what holds meaning. Writing is a craft that leaves more gravel than sculpture, helping us focus on the true shape of things.

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Illustration credit: Michelangelo Atlas slave / licensed by CC. 

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