I like gunfighters. Quick draw duels on a dusty mining town street are the norm, and they are fun, but my favorite gunslinger scene is in “Open Range” when Kevin Costner simply walks up to the main bad guy who is taunting him from the street and shoots him in the forehead from about two feet away. No banter. No swagger. No macho theatrics. No chance of missing. Just getting the job done.
The best kind of writing is like this. It’s quick, clear and rivets your attention.
Here’s how to write like a gunslinger:
Say it well once
A common problem is saying the same thing in a string of sentences. It’s like we are not really sure we said it correctly the first time, so we add another sentence that says it again in a slightly different way. This redundancy wastes the reader’s time and tries his patience. He’ll soon start scanning for morsels of meaning amid the dross of verbiage.
This problem is particularly prevalent in business and management books. Often the author has, at most, three to four ideas that can be easily communicated in 20 pages. But no one will pay for a 20-page book, so he says it again and again and again for 200 pages. (I find it maddening to read most business books.)
So, take enough time to write it well once. Of course, it will probably take more than one sentence – that is, you may need to use examples to flesh it out or you may need to talk about different aspects of your idea, and that’s okay. But don’t ever simply restate what you said with no additional information.
Remember, most gunfights are over in one shot.
Get to the point
Like Kevin Costner’s direct approach, there’s not a lot of conversion in a good gunfight. You draw. You shoot. Somebody dies.
Do the same in your writing. Don’t spend paragraphs leading up to your point. Let readers know what you are talking about right off the bat. This allows them to quickly decide if they care to read what you’ve written, which is doing the reader a great courtesy.
Often, a failure to get to the point is a sign the writer really does not know what she is talking about. She hopes that by putting a lot of words on the paper that some of them might kind of say what she is trying to explain. Readers sense this like animals smell fear.
Say what you mean
There is never any question about where a gunslinger stands on an issue. You should be the same in your writing.
I don’t mean that you must think in black-or-white terms, but to state clearly what you mean, no matter how complex the issue, without jargon or obfuscation. And be specific. General statements mean nothing, or everything – thus, still nothing.
Say something meaningful
Gunfights are worth watching because they are about something important, like the life of the gunfighters.
Similarly in writing. If you remember that writing is about the reader, not the writer, you’ll realize that the only thing worse than writing poorly is writing about unimportant things, because it wastes the reader’s time, assuming he will read it to begin with.
Now, this does not mean that you should only write about world-changing ideas, or that you can’t say something interesting about apparently insignificant things. What you write about should certainly be meaningful to you, the writer. If it is, and you’re honest and talented, you’ll be able to communicate its meaning to the reader.
But, if the subject of your writing is not important to you, then you’re likely to lapse into the laziness of jargon and cliché, which is deadly to readers.
It took Kevin Costner about three seconds, maybe two, to kill the bad guy. And it was powerful theater.
If he had taken longer, if he had talked about how much he hated the bad guy and exactly how he was going to kill him, or if it had taken two or three bullets to kill him, it would have fallen flat.
Say what you mean to say, say it well, then stop. Every unneeded word robs your writing of vitally and your reader of precious time. When you think you’ve finished, read it over and cut at least 10 percent. Make sure every adjective and adverb is essential. Kill every semi-colon that can’t defend itself; they are often signposts of redundancy. Be wary of any paragraph more than four sentences long (like this one, which has had to prove its worth).
Use as few bullets as possible.