Never use two words when one will do.

Robert Southey by Edward Nash, watercolour and bodycolour on ivory, 1820. Southey knew how to make words burn.
Robert Southey by Edward Nash, watercolour and bodycolour on ivory, 1820. Southey knew how to make words burn.

I CAN REMEMBER A TIME IN MY LIFE when my prose was colorful.

Mostly it was purple.

I thought I was an artist.

I wanted to paint word pictures.

I was an artist all right.

I painted by the numbers. But then,  I thought that was the classic way of writing.

I never used one adjective when two would work better. And if I could find a way to slide in a third adjective, I wouldn’t hesitate.

I could write a whole chapter about the beauty of a sunset.

In fact the sun would rise and set before I finished sundown.

Then something happened.

My writing changed.

My style changed.

I began writing short.

Then shorter.

I didn’t sit down one morning, stare down at my keyboard, and say, “Well, I think that sentence would work better if it were shorter.

But there they were.

Scattered on the page.

Short words.

Short sentences.

Short paragraphs.

Short chapters.

Shorter books.

Jump into the story.

Don’t tarry.

Jump in when the story is already on the move and running full speed.

Then leave as soon as the story is told.

I no longer wrote a chapter describing the sunset.

I merely wrote: “The sun fell red like blood beyond the trees and into the river.”

No more.

No less.

I didn’t need to write a thousand words to describe the sun going down.

We’ve all seen it go down.

We know how it looks.

We know what it does.

Next time I will write: “It was sundown.”

Others in the writing profession apparently agree with me.

However, it’s far more likely that I agree with them.

As August Wilson said, “The simpler you say it, the more eloquent it is.”

And Josh Billings pointed out, “There’s a great power in words if you don’t hitch too many of them together.”

Even Thomas Jefferson had an opinion: “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

As far as Baltasar Gracian was concerned, “Good things, when short, are twice as good.”

John Rushkin believed, “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.”

Said Diderot: “Pithy sentences are like sharp nails driving truth into our memory.”

Mark Twain warned, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.”

And Friedrich Nietzsche summed it up by writing: “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”

When it’s all said and done, however, I prefer the insights of Arthur Plotnik and Robert Southey.

Said Plotnik: “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside of you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”

Southey then drove the point home: “It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”

That says it all.

No need to write anything more.

I’ll quit.

And let Southey’s words burn.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Little Lies.

Little Lies Final Cover LL Mar 13

 

 

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