We talk too much.
Did you know that? It is a common trait among most people that, given the opportunity, we’ll just ramble on and on, as if we have to take a running start at whatever it is we want to communicate and can’t just come directly to the point. And then, when that point has been made, we too often keep on going when we should have stopped.
And – guess what – that trait bleeds over into our writing. Consequently, the first chore I have to undertake with many beginning writing students is not unlike an exorcism. I have to cast out all the sentences and paragraphs and sometimes whole pages of unneeded material in their writing before actually getting to what really needs to be there. It’s not uncommon to finally locate the perfect first sentence of a story or essay after a page or two of pure beating around the bush.
It’s kind of like attacking that kitchen drawer that everyone has. You know the one; the one where things end up, finally becoming so full that it’s hard to get it open. If you would take the time to take all that stuff out and look at it, you will probably discover that much of it – maybe most of it – can either be stored in a more logical place or tossed out completely. Face it: that Perry Como 8-track tape is useless now; so is that wad of S&H Green Stamps.
Stephen King – the enormously successful spinner of macabre yarns – relates this story in his dandy memoir titled On Writing. Back when he was a high school student up in Maine, he asked the editor of his hometown newspaper to hire him as a part time reporter, so the old man gave him a topic to research and told him to come up with a story. The next day young Stephen handed him several pages of typed, single-spaced text which the editor read carefully before taking out a red pencil and marking through what amounted to more than half of it.
Young Stephen looked at what was left and was amazed that what the old man had left was exactly what he had intended to say. Then the editor taught him a rule that he has never forgotten (and, thanks to him, neither have I): “when you write, you tell yourself a story, and when you rewrite, you take out everything that is NOT the story.”
There’s great truth in that; it’s a useful light to steer by when writing. Or talking.
I’ll bet you know at least one person – probably several more than that – who couldn’t effectively tell a joke if their life depended on it. And the problem usually is that they drag it out to the point of agony. They hem and haw and pause and put in way too many useless details before finally reaching the punch line. I’ve listened to jokes told badly enough that when they finally did draw to their merciful endings I probably gave audible sighs of relief.
And, be truthful now, you know at least one person who you go out of your way to avoid because you know you’re in for the long haul when they get going in a one-sided conversation.
Much of effective communication is a process of decluttering. It was Flannery O’Conner – the great short story writer and raiser of peacocks – that said good writing is very seldom a matter of saying things, but is almost always a matter of not saying things.
“Not saying things” is just often another way of saying “not cluttering.”
Here’s an example. Consider this pair of sentences: Bill cheated on his wife constantly. He wasn’t a good husband.
The first sentence shows us what the second one tells us. So the second sentence is clutter, and has to go. Showing trumps telling every time.
If you intend to be a writer of things that people might actually read it would be a good idea to keep this question constantly in mind (or physically posted on the wall over your computer): “What, exactly, am I trying to say?”
It would be well for longwinded senders of confusing memos, endless chatterers on telephones, and tellers of jokes that wander snaillike toward some hopeful conclusion to consider it also.