“Much dreaming and many words are meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 5:7
In writing circles, legend has it that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to create a story using 10 words or less. He won the bet with this: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Whether or not that incident actually took place, the pathos of those six words pierces the heart. They evoke in the reader a whole range of images and emotions.
The author Vladimir Nabokov used a similar process when introducing his main character in the novel Lolita. He summed up the most traumatic experience of her early childhood in one sentence: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.”
Novice writers feel compelled to spell out every thought, word, action, or emotion of their characters in an effort to draw readers into a story. But piling up word upon word without a thought to structure or organization is simple blathering. Crafting words requires an entirely different process.
A gifted sculptor rarely picks up hammer and chisel and starts pounding away on rock. He takes time to envision the finished piece, turning it over and over in his mind until he is thoroughly familiar with it from every angle. In the same way, a writer should never just sit down and start pounding away at the keyboard with no thought to the frame and substance of his piece. Effective writers take time to consider their aims, outline the plots, understand conflicts and resolutions, and get to know their characters from every angle before putting pen to paper. Having a clear mental concept of the completed whole helps promote successful crafting and prevents blathering.
Here’s an example of what I mean. See if you can make sense of this sentence lifted from Jose Saramago’s book Blindness (1999):
“On offering to help the blind man, the man who then stole his car, had not, at that precise moment, had any evil intention, quite the contrary, what he did was nothing more than obey those feelings of generosity and altruism which, as everyone knows, are the two best traits of human nature and to be found in much more hardened criminals than this one, a simple car-thief without any hope of advancing in his profession, exploited by the real owners of this enterprise, for it is they who take advantage of the needs of the poor.”
Without intending any disrespect to Saramago, I present this as a good example of blathering. Can you identify the root of this sentence? Are you entirely sure of what Saramago is trying to say? He piles up word upon word in an attempt to communicate his meaning, but instead ends up drowning his readers in a tsunami of language. Rather than making his thoughts clear, Saramago strangles his main idea in a noose of over-articulation.
Now here is another run-on sentence, borrowed from Rick Bragg’s book All Over But the Shoutin’ (1997). Although the line is long, it is carefully crafted to communicate the author’s intent:
“Anyone could [tell the story], anyone who had a momma who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes, who picked cotton in other people’s fields and ironed other people’s clothes and cleaned the mess in other people’s houses, so that her children didn’t have to live on welfare alone, so that one of them could climb up her backbone and escape the poverty and hopelessness that ringed them, free and clear.”
What does Bragg want us to walk away with after reading this sentence? Do you see how every word – although there are many – moves the reader toward the writer’s ultimate goal, that of conveying his mother’s selfless sacrifice for the sake of her sons?
A good writer will not just dump his bucket of language onto a page. Effective writers pick through their words and carefully choose only those that will propel the reader toward understanding. They dominate the text, instead of being dominated by it.
Just for the fun of it, give this exercise a try: Describe a significant life experience in 100 words or less. Choose words that are packed with meaning and cut away any language that is vague or redundant. I would enjoy seeing your final products if you’re willing to share them.