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A Few Words About A Lot of Words
Last week was my anniversary and I forgetfully let it pass.
Fortunately it was not my 35th wedding anniversary, but rather marked seven years writing this general-interest column on Saturdays. That adds up to 364 columns of 700 words, for a total of more than a quarter-million words.
Hence, a timely topic seems to be to discuss my wordiness.
Rather, my newfound brevity because for 25 years I wrote a sports column of 800 to 850 words each.
When I began this new 700-word challenge, it felt like trying to pack for a two-week vacation in a school backpack. I found myself still saying hello to an essay subject when it was time to bid goodbye.
But a funny thing happened: my frustration slowly shrank and I found myself enjoying the Haiku-like difficulty. Too, I found truth in Ben Franklin’s apology to a friend: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
I still usually start by writing north of 900 words, but then I must take the time to write a shorter letter. Oftentimes, eliminating 200 words takes longer than writing the original draft. Trimming the final dozen words alone to get below 700 can take an hour.
Here again I find inspiration in others. Ernest Hemingway had his “Iceberg Theory” in which he believed that the seven-eighths a writer leaves out is as important as the one-eighth he puts in above water.
The poet John Ruskin put it this way: “Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.”
My writing idol, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray, once told me: “Try not to run out of your allotment of commas.” He explained that before filing a column, he would re-read it one final time and replace as many commas as possible with periods.
Mark Twain felt similarly about adjectives, advising: “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.”
In other words, easy reading is hard writing. It requires rewriting, striking out words, rewriting again.
“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter,” the outstanding novelist James Michener said.
Again from Hemingway, who was more blunt than Michener: “The first draft of anything is (doo-doo).” Although Papa didn’t say “doo-doo.”
Henry Beston, an acclaimed author and naturalist, said he sometimes spent an entire morning on a single sentence. Oscar Wilde was even more painstaking, being credited with saying: “I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.”
The importance of a comma or a single word is no small thing. Mark Twain, no doubt taking the time to craft a shorter letter, wrote to George Bainton: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Henry David Thoreau famously advised, “Simplify, simplify.” His friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, replied even more wisely: “One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.”
“Simplicity is the glory of expression,” Walt Whitman gloriously expressed in a mere six words. Leonardo da Vinci, however, needed only five words: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
It seems to me these thoughts apply to all endeavors, be it writing or engineering or performing surgery.
Simplicity, of course, has its limits. The genius Albert Einstein knew this, explaining: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Antoine de Saint Exupery agreed: “In anything at all perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
I will close these 700 words with a few from a Woody far wiser than myself – Guthrie, the legendary folk signer: “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”
This fool will continue his quest to simplify his next 250,000 words so they will hopefully not be doo-doo.
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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.
Check out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …
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