The other day I wrote an essay about the demolition of a 19th century sailing ship on the San Francisco waterfront that I had witnessed by chance on the way to work. I was appalled, and moved to write about it because it represented to me how San Francisco is losing touch with its heritage. I got it just the way I wanted it, then showed it to a friend. “This would make a perfect Op-Ed piece in the Chronicle,” he said, and I thought, hey, he’s right.
It’s been years since I’ve sent any Op-Ed pieces around, so I called to see what the procedure was. “The essay has to be 650 words or less,” the friendly editor said. Mine was more than 1,200. So I set about the exercise of cutting it down by almost half.
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I’m a firm believer that a story can always be tightened, and here I was presented with a challenge. Could I cut away half the essay and still make it work? I had to abandon a lot of stuff I liked, but I was able to keep the essence, and if I allow myself to admit it I might say that the shorter piece is better.
Try it sometime. Get something just the way you want it and then see if you can cut it in half. It’s a great exercise, and sometimes, though not always, it can be done. The greater lesson is a piece can always be tightened, maybe not by half, but somewhat.