I’ve agreed to give a short speech at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration next week. It’s a special occasion, so I want the speech to be good.
Right now the speech is about twice as long as it needs to be. Which means that I’m right on schedule. It’s time for me to stop writing and start crossing things out.
I’m guided by this bit of wisdom from the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson (quoted by James Boswell):
Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Samuel Johnson: not particularly noted for his sense of humor
I think I first encountered this quotation when I was in my twenties — perhaps even in college. That’s a good joke, I thought. That Dr. Johnson was quite the kidder.
He wasn’t kidding. But I wasn’t listening.
By the time I turned 40 I began to see wisdom in the doctor’s prescription. Stay vigilant, I took it to mean, lest your writing become flowery or overly ornamented. I was quick to deride those attributes in other people’s writing. Scoffing, I’d hand down my judgment: it’s overwritten.
Today, however, I’m a believer. Today when I write something cunningly clever, a phrase especially well turned — anything that’s particularly fine — I regard it with suspicion.
I don’t always strike it out, I confess. At least not right away. But l move it aside. Then I go back and see whether the piece is actually stronger with it gone. Almost every time, the piece is stronger.
It’s stronger because now, instead of pleasing me, it aims to please the people who’ll read (or hear) it.
You’re looking to be informed. It’s not my place to impress you.
Perhaps you’re looking to be amused or entertained. I’m more apt to do that if I write for your benefit rather than mine.
So (on a good day at least) I’ll furl my flowery phrases and instead deploy language that’s clear and direct. I’ll stop putting on a show and I’ll put you in the center of the story.
Many of us writers fell in love in our formative years with creative writing. It’s taken most of my life to understand that solving a puzzle — the puzzle of communicating effectively with my readers while keeping them engaged — is no less creative than making my prose dance on the head of a pin.
It’s no less creative, it’s no less fun, and it’s a lot more considerate of you, my audience.
(Update: Remember the speech I was writing? Here’s how it came out.)