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Cut! Cut! Cut!


When I was teaching writing classes, I repeatedly emphasized to my students three principles of good writing. I summarized each principle using a pithy, easily remembered statement.


  • Precision--"Make every word count."

  • Concision--"When in doubt, cut it out."

  • Decision--"Finish the job--and do it now."

The first principle, precision, means to be "minutely exact." This will help prevent misunderstandings about what the writer means. It is the opposite of vagueness and generalization. Mark Twain famously said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter; 'tis the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug."


Sometimes our writing needs to be cut in broad swaths with a

literary scythe or sickle. At other times, we can do the job with scissors. But the best writing is cut with the precision of a surgical scalpel. We use the best tool for the level of edit our work requires.


The second principle, concision (or one could say excision), means "a cutting up or off." It promotes brevity and discourages needless verbosity. This one is a harder principle to practice. As Blaise Pascal wrote to someone, "I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter." This principle also includes the preference for the shorter, simpler word over the complex, polysyllabic word.


And the third principle, decision, means "a determination arrived at after consideration; promptness and firmness in deciding." It means to cut loose the literary umbilical cord that connects the written piece to its creator. This is the point at which the writer submits his or her work to readers (anyone who might be able to read or hear or consider that work, including potential publishers). The job is not finished until it has an audience.


The key to each of these three principles is found in the root of each word: cis, or "to cut." Another instance of the use of this root is found in the Bible (2 Timothy 2:15), where the apostle Paul wrote about "rightly dividing the word of truth." The phrase rightly dividing literally means "cutting it straight." It plays on a metaphor of a father cutting (slicing) bread and distributing it to his children.


Whereas the two principles of precision and concision deal with the words used to communicate a message, the cis-rooted word in 2 Timothy refers to the message itself, its accuracy, and the integrity of its presentation. This is the point at which the writer releases the message into the world so that others may benefit from it by being informed, entertained, or persuaded. Therefore, we should handle that message rightly and distribute (publish) it correctly, accurately, and evenly.


If we writers have a message worth sharing, then we should cut, cut cut. Cut out all imprecise words. Cut out all unnecessary or confusing words. Cut the message rightly, presenting it accurately. And cut it loose from ourselves so that others can benefit from it.


How is your writing? Do you need to cut somewhere? Then cut loose and do it! Finish the job! Don't delay; do it now!

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