Can I make this title shorter? Part 2

I have more to say about last night’s subject, come to think of it. The importance of fewer words. Like white space in graphics. Like pauses in music.

I know a pastor who’s a very effective preacher, but hopeless with words. He actually has, I think, a phobia about words (like my own phobia about numbers). Faced with a word choice, he grabs the first word that enters his mind and throws it against his meaning to see if it sticks. If it doesn’t, he throws another, and another, in the hope that the aggregate of all those words will be somewhere close to what he wants to communicate. If he weren’t good with gestures and facial expressions, nobody would ever know what he meant. But because he adds a lot of physical clues, he makes it work.

A lot of people try the same sort of thing with writing. They write a sentence and then think, “That’s not exactly what I meant.” So they add another sentence, or a lot of modifiers—adjectives and adverbs. In the end they walk away from the steaming pile of verbiage, hoping the meaning they intended is in there, somewhere.

That’s not readable writing.

I made a reference to Westerns last night. Think of all the Westerns you’ve ever watched. You’ll probably recognize the following scenario.

The bad guys ride into town, yahooing. They ride their horses on the boardwalks and into the saloons. They fire their pistols again and again, indiscriminately. Mothers snatch their babies up and run away, terrified of a stray bullet or ricochet.

Enter the hero. He doesn’t say much. He goes into the saloon and orders his drink. He refuses to talk to the rowdies.

They get angry. They taunt him.

He does nothing but drink his drink.

They shoot at the floor at his feet, to make him “dance.”

He doesn’t take the bait.

Finally they do (or say) something unforgivable.

Suddenly the hero is all action. But it’s limited, deliberate action. He draws his pistol. He may not even be fast with it. But his shooting isn’t indiscriminate. He fires three times. Three men fall, each of them shot dead center.

The hero has his weapon under control. He doesn’t use it more than necessary, but when he uses it he uses it with precision.

The writer’s weapon is his vocabulary. He doesn’t show it off. He doesn’t try to impress the reader with his fancy style. He uses the minimum number of words he needs to, but they’re precisely the words he wants.

(I know there are good writers who use a more flowery style. But even they, I think, need to learn to cut words first, before they can move on to an idiom of their own.)

“But how do I know the precise, right word?” you ask (using a redundancy you’ll need to work on).

There’s no royal road. Do what you need to do to expand your vocabulary. Read thesauri in your spare time. Do word puzzles in the newspaper. Read books above your reading level with a dictionary at your elbow.

Whatever you need to do, do it. Learn more words so you can use fewer of them. These are your tools. If you want to be a master, you need to control them and their uses.

3 thoughts on “Can I make this title shorter? Part 2”

  1. I wish I could quote some examples from articles I’ve edited, ugly sentences jumbled with business-speak. I’ve been able to encourage my new boss with some of the material we’ve worked on. He said he didn’t know what to do with a bad paragraph, and I would tell him we should cut it because it says nothing. I’m surprised sometimes to read real sentences, not just fragments, can say nothing at all.

  2. Lars,

    I agree…but I also disagree.

    One of the casualties of this rush to trim every sentence down to a nub is rhythm. I read so many tight sentences today that have no internal beat and, subsequently, no flow. We honor the grand language of the King James Bible, then we produce new translations that have none of the KJV’s lyricism. And lyrical beauty stems, in part, from rhythm.

    Yes, by all means trim. But leave a word or two some lesser author might have chopped if it preserves the beat of the sentence. Just because a sentence is tight doesn’t mean it’s not a clunker.

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