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THE GOLDEN RULE

November 3, 2015

Shakespeare was a master of it. Ernest Hemingway almost perfected it. George Orwell advocated it. And every writer should obey and apply it, particularly in editing and revision. Observe it when writing a memo, email, a Facebook post, a blog or a prize-winning masterwork. It applies to every kind of writing. It’s rule number one, the most important and never to be broken. Make every word count. It speaks for itself when you think about it, yet, it’s a rule regularly violated. Why?

It’s apparent to me that most writers today don’t apply it. Maybe they’ve never heard of the rule and its importance in good writing. I got it drilled into me at school from strict teachers. “Make every word count.”

Writers disregard for it is especially evident in fiction writing, and more especially in self-published works on Amazon Kindle. It seems the opposite is now in vogue (see my blog: Padding it Out: Word Inflation in Fiction). We find writers deliberately inflating their work using a variety of methods such as redundant sentences, unnecessary sub-plots, overblown or meaningless dialogue, wordy descriptions of characters and places and, of course, vivid and gratuitous sex scenes.

I believe that writers often come up with a story idea that is essentially a good short story plot but doesn’t have the legs to be the heart of a novel or even a novella. Consequently they pad it out, often under editorial encouragement. It’s common; it’s sad but true.

The corollary of the rule is: that every single word should build sentences and paragraphs that drive the plot forward, establish the setting and develop characters. If it doesn’t, take it out.

I know a talented lady writer of short stories and novellas in the romantic erotica genre; not a genre I follow, mainly because it’s usually poorly written. But she writes it well, impressively so.

On her site she announced she was writing a novel; part one of a trilogy. A mystery thriller, set in an exotic Caribbean location, it opened well. But unfortunately, the story idea just couldn’t punch its weight. Consequently, the novel got the “padding” treatment; all of it, complete with an utterly gratuitous, and brutal, sex scene. I was most disappointed, but it’s par for the course.

The rule requires discipline and is not easy to apply. But if a writer keeps it in mind he goes a long way to achieving it. Reading good writing is also important as it shows how it should be done. In my view, a healthy literary diet is essential for writers and editors. It can, of course, be spiced it up with some literary junk with no harm done, but we become what we read. If a writer reads too much crap, he’ll write crap. If an editor reads too much crap, she’ll allow crap to pass her by uncorrected. The evidence for this abounds.

Shakespeare, as I mentioned, was a master of it. Go read him. Read a piece from one of his plays. Read a Sonnet. Then try to find a word you can take out. Here he is on Love:

                                           Let me not to the marriage of true minds

                                           Admit impediments. Love is not love

                                           Which alters when it alteration finds,

                                           Or bends with the remover to remove:

                                           O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,

                                           That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;

                                           It is the star to every wandering bark,

                                           Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

On Valour:

                                               Cowards die many times before their deaths.

                                                The valiant never taste of death but once.

                                                Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

                                                It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

                                                Seeing that death, a necessary end,

                                                Will come when it will come.

No redundancy there.

The rule also applies to the spoken word. Far too much meaningless verbiage comes out of peoples’ mouths and, no surprise here, politicians are especially guilty. Here’s a recent statement from British ex-prime minister Tony Blair pontificating on Muslim extremism.

The reality is that in parts of the Muslim community a

discourse has grown up which is profoundly hostile to

peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an essential

part of fighting extremism.” (Flabby and overblown)

“In parts of the Muslim community, a discourse exists

hostile to peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an

essential part of fighting extremism.” (Better)

“Among Muslims, discourse hostile to religious tolerance

abounds. In combating extremism, it is essential to counter

such discourse.” (Much better)

I think the last word must go to that wonderful text, The Elements of Style.

“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.”

So, let us cut the flab and do it. Here’s to better writing and better reading. Cheers.

Tony McManus

Chiang Mai

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