Packing light

stuffing_suitcaseWhen you travel, how do you pack? Do you stuff a suitcase with everything you might possibly need, rain or shine? Or do you have a neat set of matching clothes that fit into one small case?

Being a recovering heavy packer myself, I’ve noticed something. Confident travellers (typically people who travel a lot) tend to pack light. Really confident travellers – including women with lots of beautiful clothes, not just men grabbing a suit and tie for another quick business trip – almost never have to check a bag in when they’re flying. As Diane von Furstenberg said, “I get ideas about what’s essential when packing my suitcase.”

Packing light can become a kind of game, a test of your own nerve and good judgement. So can writing light.

I’m leading nine writing workshops this autumn (three down, six to go), which means I’ve been reading masses of writing. Sometimes I can tell when you – the “dear writer” out there — feel uncertain. It’s as if you’re worrying that it will freeze in Marbella in August, so you decide to stuff a fleece into the bag, just in case. When you’re writing, you worry that your reader won’t know everything your charity does, so you pack more words into every sentence.

It’s only when you think like a reader yourself that you can see how much those sentences weigh. That’s why workshops are so valuable. You get to read other people’s writing. Right away you’ll notice how many writers use “doubles” to cover all bases. Here are some examples, straight from recent workshops:

 presentation and production

set up and grow small businesses

 break free and become independent

 areas of social and economic deprivation

 the teaching and learning of the national curriculum

 promote and encourage cultural participation

 nationally and internationally renowned

 successful and wide-reaching

 health and happiness

 new and thought-provoking

 difficulty and disadvantage

I know that “health” and “happiness” don’t mean the same thing. The same goes for all the other pairs of words. But when the writers had the courage to choose just one word (or even cut both), the writing felt stronger. “Areas of social and economic deprivation” could become “poor neighbourhoods”, for example – reducing the word count by four. “Nationally and internationally renowned?” How about just “renowned”? As for “health and happiness”, the workshop writers agreed that “happiness” was what really mattered in the proposal. Standing all by itself, the word carried much more emotional weight.

Go for it. Comb through your prose and find the doubles. Dare to cut at least one word from each pair. Read it out loud and see if it sounds more confident. And Marbella in August? Forget the fleece.