But sometimes I want to keep them

Omit needless words. So say Strunk and White. And so do many others who write on writing. Be concise; be direct. These are the virtues.

God knows, it's a proud day for me when I can turn something like this:

To maintain synchronization between the two controller cards, the operating system occasionally performs an automatic reload of the standby controller card. To facilitate the automatic reload of an controller card, the auto-boot variable must be set to true.

Into something like this**:

To synchronize the controller cards, the operating system occasionally reloads the standby controller card automatically. Set the auto-boot variable to true to enable this process.

(I ran a word count on the before and after, I confess. Don't scream, but sometimes I'm tempted to include this type of data in my annual self-appraisal at work. So far I've refrained. I suspect that's been wise.)

Now I want to show you something else. Something wordy. Something that would cause any measure of the FOG index to choke. And yet something from which not a single word could be excised. It's from Stephen Fry's Paperweight; it's from a review Fry wrote of Bernard Levin's book, In These Times:

I have to confess right here and now that my feelings upon being called upon to review an anthology (and it is Levin himself who says that the volumes are collections of pressed flowers, and we all know that an anthology is, if it is to be taken au pied de la lettre, nothing more, nor indeed less—and who would have it otherwise?—that a posy or, mutandis mutandis, nosegay—though no doubt the gentlemen who busy themselves with instructing us how to live and speak would have words to say, nay, shriek, on the subject of how gay or otherwise the nose may, or, come to that, may not be, for as sure as eggs are graded ovular Euro-units there will lurk in some dank council cupboard a malevolent creature whose 'nosegay' is now proscribed, look with a spot I damn it—of flowers, and if you, having followed the wild and twisting path of my clauses to a successful conclusion, can sight, in the purple distance, the welcoming beacon that promises an end to this parenthesis, then Levin is the writer for you—five hours of reading Levin and the plain English sentence is only a dimly perceived memory, if I can just find my way out of this clause, I will join you....) are not unlike that of a schoolboy on being called upon to write a report on his schoolmaster.

That's 231 words, kids! In one sentence. I wouldn't omit a single one. But perhaps it all comes down to how one defines needless.

**Yes, this is what I do all day. I know some of you repair injured bodies, enlighten young minds, preserve our environment. Some of you create businesses, look after children, rescue animals. Some of you take care of the aged, drive our economy, define public policy. Some of you create music, create art, create dance. Some of you design buildings, write books, program computers. Some of you study the stars. Unclog drains. Breed mosquitoes.*** Police our streets. Search for a cure for cancer. Lead Expotitions to the North Pole.**** But I, I...well, I turn this (that nobody reads) into that (that nobody reads). But that's OK!

***Ha ha! Did you notice that this one isn't virtuous? I do know someone who does this. He does it with a surprising amount of enthusiasm.

****Who Am I Kidding? Obviously I am getting carried away. I have 6 readers that I know of. And none of you likes long cold hikes.


richard said...

Actually I kinda like long cold hikes. And six readers? Have you checked your map lately?

Stephen Fry. A gem, in just so many ways. Did you try out QI yet?

Mr. Kite said...

Imagine a concise Will Shakespeare according to Strunk and White:

Hamlet: Should I kill myself?

Portia: No one can force you to be merciful, but you should be.

Sonnet 18: You're as pretty as nature.

Darren said...

It was a famous mystery writer from the 50s (can't remember who), who growled (about editors): "If I split an infinitive, I damn well meant it to STAY split!" Breaking the rules is part of the fun... and what a MASTERFUL sentence by Stephen Fry!

But tight prose is generally a virtue. The influence of your day gig is very clear in your blog writing, as I've said before.

fiona-h said...

oh - you're so nice!!

fiona-h said...

yes I LOVE QI!! Just watched one so far.