I’m reading the novel All the Light We Cannot See. If there were a Strunk and White writing award for omitting needless words, Anthony Doerr would win hands down. Not only has he taken this edict to heart, he’s omitted words that at first seem necessary, or at least acceptable, but once removed are not missed. I’ve taken the liberty to add a few “acceptable,” words, which are indicated in italics, to one of Doerr’s crisp, compelling paragraphs.
The questions run round and round in his head. He musters the courage to walk to the station and when it is his turn at the window, he nervously buys a ticket for a single passenger on the morning train to Rennes, which will eventually take him to Paris. On his way home, as he walks the narrow, sunless streets back to the rue Vauborel where he is staying, he continues to glance over his shoulder. He will accomplish the task as soon as possible and get it over with, so he can go back to work, staff the key pound before locking things away. It should only take a week, then he will ride unburdened back to Brittany and collect his daughter Marie-Laure.
Now, here’s the original paragraph, sans forty-six needless words, as written by Doerr.
Round and round the questions run. When it is his turn at the window, he buys a ticket for a single passenger on the morning train to Rennes and then on to Paris and walks the narrow, sunless streets back to the rue Vauborel. He will go do this and then it will be over. Back to work, staff the key pound, lock things away. In a week, he will ride unburdened back to Brittany and collect Marie-Laure.
Doerr’s writing is smooth and clean, yet tense. After reading his paragraph, it is clear the words I added are nothing more than clutter. How does a writer learn to write crisp narrative? A good writing practice is to write the best paragraph possible and then cut half the words. Next time you’re in your local independent bookstore, pick up a copy of Indie Bound or visit their website and read the short annotations. They are written with the intention to grab readers with as few words as possible.
Next week’s Five-Minute Writing Tip Part Two: Omit Needless Words from your Dial