Exercise in discipline

Sometimes we need to be concise. Sometimes we need to cut away the dross and get to the point.

I think a lot of my writing is too sparse, needing more description, more elaboration. But often the reverse is true and what I ought to do is cut to the chase and get on with it. Especially if I need the element of surprise. This sometimes means cutting away perfectly acceptable writing in order to achieve the result I want.

I have recently joined the blog 20 lines or less http://anexerciseindiscipline.wordpress.com/ which has made me think about some of my writing. I recently posted a short story there, which stuck to the 20 lines philosophy, but which had in its first incarnation been a 2,000 magazine story. The original wasn’t a bad story, but I realised that I could distil the essence of the whole thing down to just those 20 lines.

I have called this process distillation, not precis. Possibly others will argue over my semantics here, but whatever you call it, I think this is a good exercise in discipline and I give you an example here of a scene from one of my stories which I have chosen to slice to ribbons. Not because I think there is anything intrinsically wrong  with the 150 word version, or the 80 word version, but simply to see how much punch is in the last one of just 25 words.


I took a deep breath and opened the door. Inside, I stood very still for five minutes and then five more to be sure no one had heard me, taking in every detail. Wall lights were dimmed. There was a standard lamp, but the shade was burgundy, the bulb pearlised. Not much light from that direction. On the antique walnut desk, a laptop, turned off. Heavy curtains obscured the daylight of was four-thirty in the afternoon. I discerned the sound of breathing. Not mine. I stepped to the right, skirting the Queen Anne armchair into the bedroom.

He lay on the bed, on it not in it. His breathing was slow, measured. Regular. Eyelids still, without the tell-tale flicker of REM sleep. I wondered how he could sleep at all without nightmares. Following orders, I shot him twice, placed the gun in his right hand and let myself out.   (150 words)


I took a deep breath and entered quietly, waiting to be sure no one had heard me. The room was dimly lit, curtains obscuring the afternoon sun. I heard his regular breathing and skirted the Queen Anne armchair to enter the bedroom.

He lay on the bed, not in it and I wondered how he could sleep so soundly without nightmares. Following orders, I shot him twice, placed the gun in his right hand and let myself out.  (80 words)


I entered the dim bedroom and following orders, shot the man on the bed twice, placed the gun in his hand and let myself out. (25 words)

So I offer you a challenge and I hope you will take me up on it:

Try distilling a passage of your writing from 150 words down to 25 words and see what happens. I will put up a new page ‘Challenge’ and if you would like to join in the please add your story to the comments.


23 responses to “Exercise in discipline

  1. The thing is , I enjoyed your first version, for I could savour the writing, the atmosphere, and simply enjoy reading and being taken on a journey…
    I didn’t really want “to cut to the chase” , to quote Adrian Mole amongst others!

    • Interesting, and actually, I have left the original, but later on in the chapter taken out another slice instead. Mood is everything here and yet sometimes, you just need the drama of the unexpected.
      Thank you for your thoughts. Going to have a go?

  2. I agree with Valerie, I too prefer the first verison though the other two do have their merits.

    I also feel that each version would work depending on the character that is narrating:

    1. Might work for somebody committing their first contract killing. They will notice everything and that style of writing adds a dash of tension. It feels as though it is actually happening now

    2. Feels more like recounting the event later, perhaps going over it in their mind five or ten minutes after the fact

    3. Cold and emotionless, the sort of passage to be written by somebody for whom killing is a matter of routine. They’d treat it with the same indifference they would feel when discussing a typical Monday morning routine

    • Yes and that’s part of the point. Writing is all about mood and context. The character should decide how little or how much goes in.
      Sometimes, we need the exposition. Sometimes we certainly don’t, but our own verbosity can get in the way.

  3. I tend to say too much, and that’s why formalist poetry appeals to me. I am forced to say everything within particular rhythmic confines. It’s great practice. Although I’m not a prose writer, I will definitely try your challenge.

    • Great – and I love what I have seen of your poetry. Haven’t had chance to really camp out on your site, but will do soon. I know what you mean about the rhythmic confines. That’s why I write verse when I’m a bit stuck on prose. Something about the structure leaves some bit of my head free to concentrate on my prose.
      Does that sound weird? Anyway, it does.
      Glad you are going to give it a whirl.

      • No, not weird at all. Thank you for your kind words about my poetry. Thanks for your go-ahead attitude with the prose challenge. That will get me going, for sure.

  4. That is a great exercise. I’m slowly working my way through a 10 page story I wrote last year, trying to tighten up passages in this manner.

    Welcome to the 20 Lines Community! I haven’t been posting as much as I’d like on there since I joined but it is a fabulous community. I thought I saw one of your posts earlier this week.

    • Thank you – glad to come aboard 20 lines. Looks good, though I need to spend a bit of time on there and poke about more. I have only posted 4-5 times and am finding it a great challenge.

  5. Here goes…

    1. My mother had always told me that the figs from our tree were edible, as long as I were careful to check them for worms. With that in mind I shuffled out the back door, approached the tree and shooed about ten black birds from the fig tree branches and began to survey the crop of fruit for ones that were worthy. After about fifteen minutes I noticed that the black birds had, basically, devoured most of the good fruit, leaving me about four or five that we both worm-free and pecked-free. Begrudgingly, I took those few and went back inside, washed them and ate them in a sour mood on my bed.

    2. My mother told me a lot of things about figs. Following her advice I went out and got the best figs that I could find that had not been infested with worms or eaten by birds. Since there were only a few left I took them inside, washed them, and ate them on my bed.

    3. I love figs. Black birds f’n suck!

    Did I do it correctly? 🙂

    Thanks for the post. Enjoyed reading it and will keep it in mind.


  6. Hey Pat, nice exercise. I thought I’d join in.

    1. The note lands in my hand. The paper, coarse against my skin, sits heavy on my mind with portent. Its deliverer, a fine young man, holds his hand out in expectation.

    I slide him a nickels worth of coppers and, with a curt wave, send him on his way. The door shuts, leaving me to my solace, a crystal glass of the finest scotch, and the note in my hand.

    The paper is of the old world, textured with thick pulp you wouldn’t expect in this modern age. An artistic hand has labeled the front and I know that the cursive can only be Grandmother Death’s. The note, her signature piece, signifies one thing and one thing only. Someone near me is going to die and, if I want to know who, all I have to do is read the note. I reach across my mahogany desk for my letter-opener. (150)

    2. The note lands in my hand and I measure its portent. It is heavy, thick and coarse. The paper from the old world, and the artistic hand that adorns it, tell me it can only be Grandmother Death’s. The bellhop remains, his hand out in expectation. I slide him a nickels worth of coppers and send him out. The note, Grandmother’s signature piece, can mean only one thing. Soon someone is to die. To know, I open the letter. (79)

    3. I assess Grandmother’s note, dismiss the bellhop, and reach for my letter-opener. As morbid as it may be, I desire to know. Who will die? (25)

    After doing this, I realize that this exercise is great for developing great first lines. I think my first one is good for an opening scene, but the last line of three makes for a great hook opening. I wonder if, trying this again, I would develop similar results with my novels.

    • Interesting, isn’t it? The thing is, none of them are wrong. They would all be appropriate, depending on the circumstances and timing and mood of the piece you are supposed to be writing. And yes, may well be a good idea for first lines and hooks. Glad you tried it. Enjoyed reading it. Thank you for stopping by and for giving this a whirl. I hope it is of help to you.

  7. Love this, Pat! I tried this a little while ago, when I saw Maggie post about it, but thought it was 150 lines, then 50, and then 25. I’ll edit that post and include the link to this blog in there.

    I found it very difficult…but fun to try. I tend to get more long winded sometimes than I need to, so very much relate to what you were saying here. I do make an effort when I’m writing an entry in my blog, not to go over 500 words though. I think I’ve improved somewhat anyway.

    • Hi glad you liked this. It can be difficult and it isn’t always necessary. But it does give you an insight into how much or how little we need to say, depending on the circumstances. And I know what you mean about long blogs. I have to sit on my hands to shut myself up! But writing fiction, I’m often very sparse and actually have to go back and add stuff back in. But doing this exercise has convinced me that it isn’t always necessary to do that. If it’s punch I’m after, then the short version is right. sometimes though, I just get carried away with the beauty of the writing (sic!) and what is there is utter drivel. Slicing it to ribbons is by far the best idea.
      Thank you for commenting and thank you for linking back to me. I look forward to reading your versions.

  8. Pingback: Road Trip (Pat’s prose challenge) « 20 Lines or Less

  9. Pat, I meant to come back to this earlier but am veryyyy behind in my reading and responding. This was a GREAT challenge and I hope you’ll do more of them, here and/or at 20 Lines … I think you’ve inspired many to pare down what they are saying and the results were just incredible. Thanks for such an interesting exercise and I am trying this myself! — Melissa

    • Hi Melissa That’s very kind. I’m glad it worked out, but really the inspiration was from 20 lines itself. It made me think hard about what I was writing and I thought it would work for others too. Very glad it has gone down so well. – Pat

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