Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Wasted words

My uncle told me a story once.

He was remembering high school, specifically a day in which he'd missed class, and had asked to borrow the notes of his buddy, Mike.

Mike handed him a half sheet of paper.

"Wow," Jeff said. "This is all your notes?"

"Yeah," Mike said. "I only wrote down what was important."

Jeff was puzzled. Seems he always had to take pages and pages of notes during a normal class period. So, he asked another friend for his notes.

That friend handed him three pages.

It's a wide-ranging lesson, one that is of particular value to a writer. Anybody can blather on for 700 or 800 words, my boss is fond of saying. The real trick is to say what you have to say in 500 words or less.

Truman Capote was a genius at it. Somebody -- Groucho Marx maybe -- said he wouldn't change one word of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I'd say the same thing of Pete Hamill's peerless memoir "A Drinking Life."

I suppose literature is broad enough to accept both Hemingway's two word sentences and Faulkner's two page sentences. But, I can promise you that one is much easier to read.

Here's a trick if you ever want to while away a rainy afternoon. Write something. Anything. Say everything you want to say.

Then cut it by 100 words. Then read it again and cut it by another 100. It's not as easy as it sounds. But I promise you the final product will be lean, mean and easy to read.

My favorite Bible verse is the shortest. "Jesus wept." Kinda says it all, me thinks.

Don't you wish those jerks on the TV political shows would learn such a lesson? Who knows -- they might actually say something worth hearing if forced to think about it first.

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