Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Word Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

#30    Remove things that “go without saying.”

Consider these sentences:
John removed his hat from his head.
Joan had never done something like this before in her life.
The reader can reasonably be expected to know that hats are worn on the head, as opposed to the knee, wrist, ankle, or elsewhere. Moreover, unless your story is about reincarnation, a person has no other lives in which to do something like that.

John removed his hat from his head.

Joan had never done something like this before in her life.

These sorts of accretions on your prose generally come about when you're dashing off prose. When you turn the words in your head into the words on paper, you can easily hold a couple things in mind where only one should be written down.

This is an easy thing to find and fix. The easiest and best editing is often done with just the delete key.

I think that well written prose is something like a Japanese painting where each stroke of the brush contributes to the picture with nothing extraneous added. Remove everything that is not needed and no more. You know what should be conveyed to the your target reading audience. That knowledge should reflect what you put on to the page.

Some readers need a few more clues than others. When I was in high school, I didn't appreciate the one Hemingway story I had been assigned because I hadn't lived enough to put it in its proper context. Sure I grasped the atmospherics of a gray Michigan weekend in late autumn, but not the alienation of breaking up with a fiance. (This is why you don't want to assign Hemingway to high schoolers.)

What went without saying to a serious adult was lost on a callow youth such as myself. Some cultural referents may be missing from your audience. What is obvious to an American reader may fly over the head of a British reader. or vice versa.

You may cut too much, but this is the exception, not the rule. If there are two things in your prose that support the same point, look for the one which best makes your point and cut the rest. If there's something your reader can reasonably infer from the rest, delete it. Every word must contribute enough to the story to justify the reader's time spent reading it.
Though you might cut too much, but you should cut nevertheless.


  1. I hear this a lot, and there are times it IS good advice, but sometimes... I like the extra detail. There are several online works that I enjoy that really fill out the page. Extra description, idiom, jokes, fluff that doesn't advance the story, but is still an enjoyment to read.

  2. Sometimes the extra word isn't the extra detail--just redundancy. Like the two examples I gave. In those cases, definitely use the delete key.

    Conversely, the bits of fluff you mention add something real, albeit small, to the prose. In these cases, I'll heartily agree there's a time and place for that.


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