Saturday, April 17, 2010


Peter and John’s (how biblical!) most recent posts, below, are about the value of cutting extra verbiage from one’s work.

Peter said that having been a screenwriter has taught him that “using crisp, pointed dialogue ... is worth a thousand words of telling your readers that Character A has a foul temper.”  John mentioned a James Patterson’s interview in which he states that he “cuts out just about every bit of extraneous information.”  An author should never put anything into his book that doesn’t explain character or advance the plot, Peter notes.  I use the same sentence whenever I teach a writing class.  

If you want to keep your readers’ attention, cut to the chase. Especially these days, and especially in the U.S., where many readers have no patience with description or exposition.  

Like John, I enjoy a bit of scene-setting.  A beautiful or clever turn of phrase always pleases me. But that doesn’t mean I believe that what I like defines the standard for good writing. I am not making a judgment about this.  Time marches on.  Styles and tastes change, and whose to say which is intrinsically better?  It is what it is.

In fact, I heard a Famous Author say that one of the best things he ever did to improve his prose style and technique was to learn to write poetry.  I’ve pondered this statement, and I must agree that there is nothing like poetry to teach you how to use the fewest possible words to make the biggest possible impact on the reader.

The amazing thing is that once you have written a few poems, once you have learned to fit your idea into the shortest possible form, your long-form style automatically changes without your having to even think about it. Your prose gains a vigor that it didn’t have before, because its power is no longer dissipated in a miasma of unnecessary words.

This is the idea behind of haiku, that style of Japanese poetry that strives to make a point, capture a moment of time, punch you between the eyes. To give you a powerful image in seventeen syllables, three lines of five, seven, and five.

I was looking for a few gorgeous haiku to use in this entry as illustration of the principle of brevity, perhaps a couple of gems about nature and mankind by great practitioners like Basho (An old pond -- The sound of a diving frog). Instead, I came across translations of several modern haiku that struck my fancy so much that I saved them. These were written by software geeks in Japan for use as computer error messages,  I think they’ll show that an ancient form can serve modern sensibilities very well.

Windows NT crashed.

I am the Blue Screen of Death

No one hears your screams.

Yesterday it worked.

Today it is not working.

Windows is like that.

Three things are certain

Death, taxes, and lost data.

Guess which has occurred.

You step in the stream,

But the water has moved on.

This page is not here.

Serious error.

All shortcuts have disappeared.

Screen.  Mind.  Both are blank.

1 comment:

Vicki Delany said...

Those are brilliant, Donis. Thanks.