Friday, November 13, 2009

Don't Omit Needless Words

I will quote the classic The Elements of Style:

"Omit needless words.
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."

I really don't like the use of their word "unnecessary." Necessity is too strong a criterion for writing or art.
One of my favorite illustrators is Heinrich Kley. Please look at the drawing through the link below:

Kley draws with a free, sketchy style. Now imagine going through this drawing with Kley, and asking him to justify each line or delete it. Is every line in this drawing necessary? Of course not. Most single lines in this drawing are far from necessary. However, the lines, in groups, are necessary for the overall effect the drawing has on its audience.

I imagine there is an analogous problem with writing. Language, both spoken and in its written form, creates an impression, rich with subtlety. It could be the case that, given a set of words, no single one of them is necessary, but as a whole, they serve an important function. I think this holds true for artistic writing, but to a lesser extent other writing as well.

Take a look at the last sentence I wrote. Is the "as well" really necessary? Should I omit needless words? The sentence would read "I think this holds true for artistic writing, but to a lesser extent other writing." It's clear, but it takes a second longer to parse. The sentence has been damaged because we omitted needless words.

I know that most people go on and on with their writing and need to reign it in. I think people should think about each word. My point is only that necessity is too strong a criterion.

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Marcin Rybacki said...

It's a matter of methology too...

Some writers intentionally repeat the same information or rephrase that information only to get their point across.

I guess this depends on the audience and their expectactions...

Aidan Delaney said...

Isn't there a difference between writing as a form of communication and writing as an art? For example, when writing a scientific paper I want/need to communicate my results concisely. However, Jonathan Swift or James Joyce are artists and their writing is a form of expression different from the communication of raw facts. To stick to your sketching example, someone like Tufte would advise that a diagram should contain only the minimum amount of information and no more. However, I would have been grossly disappointed to visit the Vatican and find that the School of Athens had been reduced to stick figures.

HandsakerA6 said...

Its another part to get more succeeded when you are not getting those words so right developing your attitude towards such piece of instructions almost been so important there. rephrase a sentence