Looking for Words to Leave out. The Authors Collection.
November 5, 2013
I started playing the trumpet when I was nine years old. I started actually enjoying it and wanting to become good at it when my dad got me out of bed one night to watch Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Dad knew that when it came to music—any pursuit, for that matter—what was taught was important, but what was caught was better.
It worked that night, and to this day when my church band takes enough pity on me to allow me to play, my now-flabby and somewhat arthritic fingers strike the three values about halfway down. You’re supposed to hit the values with the fingertips. But that’s not how Armstrong did it, as I told all my teachers to their chagrin.
Many trumpet players inspired me as a student—Armstrong, Herb Alpert, Doc Sevrinsen, and the late Miles Davis. Davis was the personification of cool—very cool.
Miles Davis said of his music, “I’m always looking for notes to leave out.”
More than four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare coined the phrase, “brevity is the soul of wit,” and ever after writers have struggled with issues of verbal economy. When writing my first book several years ago, I remember being preoccupied with the word count, as if that was how score was kept. And it was hard to watch editors dismiss long passages of prose with their brutal red pens.
But finding those words to leave out is hard. I like what Mark Twain once wrote to a friend: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Though tongue-in-cheek, Mr. Twain was right. Brevity may be the soul of wit, and therefore the essence of effective writing, but it’s often illusive.
One key is for the writer to think like a reader. Elmore Leonard, who died a few months ago at the age of 87, understood this. His body of work included Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma, and Justified. Among his celebrated “Ten Rules of Good Writing” was this gem: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Now, what readers skip varies from one book consumer to another. Without some scientific formula to apply to an emerging manuscript, we are left to fly by the seat of our pants. The problem I have is not so much with the number of words, but rather my propensity for trivial details. And it is something I have to work on anew any time I begin a project.
I blame my dad—the same man who turned me on to Satchmo. He also inspired my love of history. And when it comes to history, the key is detail. Erik Larson (“Isaac’s Storm,” “Thunderstruck,” “Devil in White City,” etc.) refers to his research process as “hunting for detail.” Such details bind a story together. But not every detail is “sponge worthy”—to use an old Seinfeld-ism (if you don’t get that one, that’s probably a good thing).
But—I’d be remiss on a whole series of levels if I didn’t answer the question that has possibly haunted you for a few paragraphs. What were the other nine rules laid out by the late Mr. Leonard?
Glad to you asked:
- Never open a book with the weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the word “said”…admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Such rules bring to mind many others—particularly those associated with the late William Safire (“On Language”). My favorite of his was: “Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.”
Please click the book cover image to read more about David R. Stokes and his books.