Omit Needless Words: How I Learned to Write with Brevity
October 12, 2017 § 30 Comments
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., edited by E. B. White.
In 1974, my Journalism 101 professor gave only two pieces of required reading: the local city newspaper, and The Elements of Style.
One book. One daily.
What could be easier?
Turned out, a lot of things. Concise writing takes diligence, skill, and patience. Three things I lacked as a college sophomore. But I pecked away on my typewriter, practicing every day, until I finally scored a coveted reporter’s job, the first of many.
Thirty years later, resurrecting my writing career, I faced a no-nonsense adjunct teaching The Art of Flash Nonfiction. She required we start small—only 250 words written to prompts she provided the first week, 500 words the next week, then 750, until we reached a polished 1000-word essay by the end of the semester. Plus we would read a series of essays from a website called Brevity. We could email her brief questions only if absolutely necessary.
A thousand words. On-line reading.
What could be easier?
She passed out a Brevity essay, Debra Marquart’s Hochzeit. “Read the essay to yourselves,” she said, “then tell me what’s different about it.”
The story swirled in front of my eyes in a whirlwind of colors, sounds, flavors and scents, as the author remembers a family wedding from her childhood. Thirty-nine sentences in seven meager paragraphs transported me to a Polka hall in the Midwest, the beat and bellow of pumping accordions, “whoops and yips” from spinning dancers in their flared skirts and beribboned finery, and the burning sweetness of “gold pools of wedding whiskey.”
Marquart’s writing was different from anything I’d read. It wasn’t your standard nonfiction piece, it wasn’t journalism—even if you could measure it in column inches, and it wasn’t the New Journalism the old me left behind decades ago. I needed to know why the piece left such a visceral impact on me.
When the instructor asked what we thought, my hand crept up. “The writer omitted needless words?”
“Yes. That’s one thing. Thank you, E.B. White. Anyone else?” The class tittered.
“The who, what, when, where, and sometimes why, are clearly up front,” I added, reaching back to the first rules I learned about newspaper reporting.
“Yes,” she said, “but what else. Anyone besides Ryder?”
I sunk back down in my hard plastic chair. What exactly was it about Marquart’s essay that had awakened me?
Our assignment for the week was to write two 250-word essays. If they were one word over, they would not be read or graded. We were given more essays from Brevity—Anne Panning’s Candy Cigarettes; Sarah Lin’s Devotion; Erika Dreifus’ Before Sunrise—to study for style, voice, metaphor, lyricism. Carefully. If we did not understand the terminology we were to email her—briefly—before the next class.
For seven long days, I slaved over my two pieces, editing and re-editing. I dissected the reading assignments like a frog in freshman biology, peeling back each story’s tiny skin layer by layer. First the story line, then the structure, finally the writer’s word choices. I searched for every metaphor, each simile, every omitted word. What was it about these little essays that left me with a feeling of such grandiosity in so few words?
It came to me on the seventh day—driving the twenty miles to campus alone, windows rolled down to bright September. My eyes took in the reds, golds and oranges of the maple leaves flickering across my windshield, backlit by a sky the color of the bluest sea. The sun shone on my arm resting on the open window, the last of summer falling onto my Shetland sweater. Finally, I understood. It was the smaller details that made the larger story.
After we handed in our assignments, the instructor asked what we’d learned reading and writing short prose. I shot up my hand.
“Yes?” she said, sighing a little.
“The words seemed hand-chosen, cherry-picked, then boiled down to extract only the most essential details. The writer shows the reader a dreamlike memory, crystal clear in the telling.”
“Bingo!” she said and smiled broadly.
Two semesters later, I entered a Brevity Blog contest and won second place. The first person I emailed was my instructor. Writing, I realized, is not just about following style books and memorizing classroom notes. When you omit the needless, you choose the necessary– and sometimes, that is one perfect ray of sun falling on the back of your hand.
Ryder S. Ziebarth runs the Cedar Ridge Writers Series and blogs for Proximity. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as an Associate editor of Tiferet Journal. Her work has appeared in Brevity, N Magazine, The New York Times, The Writer’s Circle, Tiferet, and many other other blogs, newspapers and online journals.