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Editing woes

Good writing advice often includes ‘get rid of all unnecessary words'. The awesome Zinsser says as much in his must-read On Writing Well, and he's right. But one can go too far.

Why is it that editors these days, especially the ones that live in your own head, want to pare everything down to the barest possible minimum? Imagine this:

“A rippling shade of spotted fur prowled across the Throne Room floor, towards where the Maharajah was ensconced in royal splendour. A fat, slack-jawed man, with the petulance that comes from having every whim obeyed since birth, and the ruthlessness needed to get and keep a throne in these troubled times. The leopard padded silently to her accustomed place. No bare stone floor for this pampered favourite, no. A dozen artisans had slaved a year to make the carpet that she would lie on. A delicate pattern, pleasing to man and the Gods, woven in silken reds and blues. Arriving, the leopard, muscles undulating under the glossy pelt, turned around once, twice, and then settled her haunches down. Head high, she surveyed the room, the courtiers and servants, silks and cottons, all falling beneath her gaze. The light streaming in from the high filigreed windows caught at a jewel on her collar, any one of which could grace a crown.”

If we follow that advice to the letter, we would end up with this:

The cat sat on the mat.

Really. Pare everything away, and you end up with what, exactly? A shopping list? An email to someone you don’t like enough to describe stuff to?

Call me prolix if you will, overblown even, but really, people don’t go visit the Louvre for its pared-back modern architecture. They go for the bling.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

3 Responses

  1. The key is the word “unnecessary” — all the _necessary_ details, but no more. Clearly, the author of the text above considered mentioning the filigree to be relevant for the ambience of the scene. And this kind of prose is all about ambience… But I’d pare it down in this particular instance, if I was the editor. 🙂

  2. *I* wrote every word of this post- I wouldn’t quote without attribution! But yes, the question is ‘necessary’.

  3. And “necessary” leaves a lot of room for interpretation or, better, judgement. Turns out, or so I think, that what is necessary depends a lot on the tone, point of view, narrative stance etc. (even in the case of non-fiction, these vary). One book on style (defining style in a very different sense it is usually done) which I think is really helpful (to me, even eye-opening) is Clear and Simple as the Truth, by Thomas and Turner.

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