The Ultimate Oak Leaf

I occasionally use the following two paragraphs in a PowerPoint presentation during writing classes to illustrate the point that stripping words to their bare essence is one of the most effective ways to emphasize the power of your message:
I look up at the gnarled oak tree, starkly outlined against the sky and see a single dry leaf clinging tenaciously to the largest limb. Every other leaf in the woods fell to the ground weeks ago when we had that last fierce wind, but this leaf may still be there until the tree buds in the spring. The leaf reminds me of my mother, clinging stubbornly to life long past the time when it seemed her body was ready to let go. (83 words)

Lifeless oak leaves cling tenaciously to skeletal branches. Well into winter, they stubbornly resist gales, unwilling to separate from the reality they've known. My mother was the ultimate oak leaf. (30 words)
The most common response after several seconds of silence is “How do you get from number one to number two?

I can answer with assurance, because I wrote those two paragraphs several years ago in response to a writing group challenge to pare a paragraph by at least fifty percent to expose the key message. I rose to the challenge. The process was similar to stripping layers of paint from a flea market find to expose the beautiful wood underneath. This second paragraph is only thirty- six percent of the original, and the uncluttered point is in sharp focus. I assure you that getting it to that point took more than ten minutes! I nipped, tucked, rearranged, and reworded. I kept pecking away, leaving and coming back over the course of nearly a week. I probably revised it thirty-seven times before I got it to the point where I’m no longer tempted to change anything.

Even those of us who know that stories are much like infants (emerging from the womb pliable and bloody) tend to forget the amount of work polished writers put into their creations. Keep that in mind as you do battle with that inner critic lashing out at you with statements like “You’ll never be able to write like that!” or “You aren’t creative enough to come up with such stunning images.”

Talk back to your critic. Firmly insist that you can do anything if you practice and learn. You need time and patience, and you are entitled to as many drafts as it takes. Add words where they are needed to flesh out a description, and then get out the pruning shears. Remember that less is more.

Write now: take a first draft paragraph and remove at least twenty-five percent of the words to strengthen the message. Rewording is allowed. The focus is on thought and word count, not the specific words. Post a comment and let us know how you did.


Herm said...

Sharon, I enjoyed this post. I just did this a few days ago in a story I was trying to keep under 1200 words. I upped the ante by challenging myself to eliminate words while raising the visual impact. It was worth the effort.

I liken your two paragraphs as: #1 The spoken word. #2 The written word.

One is conversational and the other contemplative. In photographic terms; color vs B&W

Pat's Place said...

Hmmmm! Your current blog posts have not been registering on my blog and I went to this current blog entry because I was missing you. So glad you are still in there!

Ritergal said...

Thanks for the analogy Herm. Several people in the lifestory group at the library voted for #1. I can see why. #2 is rather "arty." Maybe more like poetry or serious literature. I'm pleased I was able to do it, but it is definitely a departure from my usual voice.

Ritergal said...

Pat, perhaps I wasn't showing up because I hadn't done any for over a week while our daughter and her little girls were visiting. I was busy telling stories rather than writing them.

Terri Tiffany said...

what a wonderful post! I love to write short stories and seem to be able to pare them down but have the problem of doing the same thing when I write a book. I suppose I should break it down more.

Ritergal said...

Thanks for stopping by Terri. Books can be pruned on two levels, large chunks and individual paragraphs and phrases. In either case it's a challenge to know what to keep and what to toss.