Omit Needless Words?

We’re all told to omit needless words, that this is the key to good writing.  Simple, we’re told.  Just cut those extra or latinate words and you’ll find under the fluff the sinews of virile prose.   And the connotation is that this is almost a scientific exercise, one which yields objective truth which multiple observers would be able to reproduce after starting with the same raw material.   Occam’s Razor amputates opinions and incises down to reality, and all rational people agree when the results are right.  We’re told.  

But “needless” means different things to different editors.   Of course, it means “words that add nothing to the meaning or clarity”, but the individual editor’s worldview will define “meaning” and “clarity”, perhaps unconsciously.   Since each sentence emanates undertones and overtones of flavor as each word brings ancient seasons to the stew, no editor escapes value judgements about the validity of the slight tones in the ear or after-flavors on the tongue.  No editor escapes his own internalized set of meanings as he judges whether a word works.   

As you write or try to make writing better, yours or others, you talk metaphysics.


I knew a man who had heard “omit needless words” and he wielded it.  He was a bit of a reductionist in his daily life, I thought.   He seemed to have little use for any of what I would call the intangibles.   He was an orthopedic surgeon, so had something of a scientific background  (though surgeons, in my experience, are surprisingly anecdotal thinkers).   Befitting his surgeon’s task-oriented temperament, he had little use for not only religion but art and humanities.  He liked astronomy.   You might think my calling him “reductionist” is just my bias against his apparent agnosticism,  but we never talked about religion and yet I still saw in him the reductionist tone.     

He liked to reduce prose to only the needed words.  In his work he would have occasion to approve documents such as hospital policies and patient education handouts.   He would cut ruthlessly till the sentences were short as Hemingway’s, and smile a satisfied smile.  He wanted everyone to learn this skill from him.   English teachers were his secret admirers, he was sure.  

I fancied myself a wordsmith and understood the principle, and generally agreed with it.  We’ve all felt the relief of reading the shaped-up paragraph, half as long as it was, and now both lighter and stronger.  But there was something about this surgeon’s scalpel on prose that bothered me.  I wanted to be loyal to Strunk and White and couldn’t imagine contradicting the hallowed Occam, so I thought it might just be me.   His product seemed skeletal.  It took me years to figure it out, but finally it dawned:  he cuts the overtones, nuance, and patina of language as if any letter added to subject and object is “fluff”.   He is an editor in search of the mathematical equation which is the reality beneath the smokescreen of words.   He sees the world as a substructure of impersonal logic draped in a fog of rhetoric.   i did not see the world the same way, so our conflict of visions was triggered, for me, in the simple act of killing an adjective.  

Nothing is not metaphysics.    



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