One of the more important lessons about writing that I have learned is that less is more. One can always, and I really mean always, cut what one has written. It’s very difficult and sometimes extremely painful. I find it particularly difficult to cut out a good story or a humorous phrase that I know will get a good response; but if it doesn’t fit, cut it out.
Being brief, cutting out the nonessentials, is one of those fundamentals we just have to get right if we want to keep our readers to the end. But, like all rules it can be broken, as long as you know what you are doing. Put me in a kitchen and you’ll have to give me a recipe, which I’ll follow to the last teaspoon, because I don’t know any better. An experienced chef will know where she or he can deviate from the recipe. In the same way an experienced writer can happily break rules to good effect.
John Kenneth Galbraith is one such writer. His expertise with words makes him a delight to read, even though his subject is economics and he spent his life in academia and government, neither of which is usually associated with elegant prose.
While reading Galbraith’s memoirs, A Life in our Times, I found him breaking the rule about using fewer and simpler words (not for the first time). He was describing the Scottish-Canadian community in which he grew up. According to the rule, he should have written, “The people were diligent, gossiped and obeyed the law.” Nine words which tell us a fair amount about the people. He wrote, instead, “The people were diligent, given to much harmless pleasure in recounting the physical and mental disabilities of their neighbours, and greatly law abiding.”
Twenty three words but “gossiped” just doesn’t cut it, does it?
- Quote: John Kenneth Galbraith (alwaysquestionauthority.wordpress.com)
- Galbraith on Mises (economicnoise.com)