There Are Simply Too Many Words

Just cut a few, and it’ll be perfect!

If you’ve seen the brilliant Milos Forman film Amadeus, Very Loosely Based on the life of Mozart, you probably remember this exchange between Mozart and Emperor Franz Josef, right after the premiere of Mozart’s operetta Escape from the Seraglio:

In this conversation, of course, Mozart is the genius and the Emperor is the musical moron with wig curls for ears, so we’re supposed to think Franz Josef’s suggestion to “cut a few” is absurd.  But what the film doesn’t get into (and thank goodness for that, it’s already 161 minutes long) is why Mozart knows that there are “exactly as many notes as [he] require[s].”  In a good musical composition, as in a good literary composition, every note (or word) is present for a reason.  Maybe you need it to complete a chord, or maybe it carries the emotional core of the passage, or something in between, but in any case, it must be doing work.  Writers, too, must refuse loitering in their writing: if a word isn’t doing a job, a real job, kick it out, no questions asked.

When writers allow squatters in their sentences, the squatters consume the writing and render it clunky and vague.  When commenting on your students’ papers, or addressing your class, you probably call this “filler” or “fluff.” “Cut the fluff,” you have likely said, written, and begged over and over.  And your students try! They want you to enjoy reading what they’ve written. But to be honest, many of them aren’t sure what counts as “fluff,” or how to get rid of it. (Also, your minimum page requirement is four, and they’ve only got two and a half.  We’ll cover how to help students fill out their papers in a future post.)

So how do we “cut a few” from our writing?  Consider the following passage:

The papacy of Rodrigo de Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, was extremely corrupt and scandalous.  In order to be elected Pope, Alexander gave bribes in the form of benefices, or lifetime church appointments, to both his opponents for the papacy and the Cardinals responsible for the election.  At first, he was very strict and law-abiding, but soon he gave into the temptation to engage in nepotism, such as appointing his seventeen-year-old nephew the Archbishop of Valencia, and generally made advancing the position of his family through his office a priority.  It is even rumored that he and his son conspired to poison Cardinal Adriano Castellesi, though this is disputed by some historians. In addition, Alexander kept several mistresses and had many illegitimate children, and he may have (though this is possibly an urban legend) hosted a notorious party called the “Banquet of Chestnuts” in the Papal Palace at which about fifty prostitutes were present.

At what point did your eyes begin to glaze over?  Probably not too far in. And if there’s one thing you should not be able to make boring, it’s the reign of Pope Alexander VI.

Your hypothetical student who turns this mess in believes she has done a great job.  Everything in here, after all, is relevant to the topic at hand, and she found it fascinating when she was doing her research.  She’s frustrated when you tell her it’s full of fluff.

Last year, I stopped using “fluff” as shorthand for “words that aren’t doing any work.”  In the classic Elements of Style, Strunk and White instruct readers that “a sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”  I’ve started instead telling my students that they’ve used too many words, or unnecessary words. That doesn’t mean they can’t have any long sentences; they just can’t use any words that don’t belong. Ask your students to imagine that each sentence, each paragraph, is a dance floor.  If you let the dance floor get too crowded, not even the best dancers will be able to show off their moves, because there won’t be enough room to move around. The Pope Alexander VI paragraph above is way beyond capacity, and it has become flat, sluggish, and arrhythmic as a result.

Look at the paragraph again.  What do you see that can be cut?  Slimmed down? Rearranged? Let’s work through the first sentence together.

The papacy of Rodrigo de Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI

Hang on.  Why do we need to know that his birth name was Rodrigo de Borgia?  Does that become important later? If not, get rid of it. If your paragraph were on the Borgia family, it might be relevant, but your paragraph appears to be only about Alexander’s papacy.  I’ve read many a student paper about “a novel by Mary Anne Evans, also known as George Eliot.” Unless you’re writing her biography, just Eliot’s nom de plume will do.

was extremely corrupt and scandalous.

99% of the time, “extremely” is a useless word.  Either you don’t need it at all, or there’s another word or words that can do the job much better.  Adverbs, as a rule, are not your friends when you’re trying to avoid unnecessary words. “Corrupt” and “scandalous,” in the meantime, mean essentially the same thing in context.  The writer has split up a workload that one word could have managed.

How do we fix it?  In this case, and in many cases, we change the verb.  Let’s find a more exciting verb?

Corruption tainted every aspect of Alexander VI’s papacy.

The sentence is now half its original length, and it moves.  It asks us to focus on the corruption, which is the real focus of the piece, and its power to rear its ugly head everywhere.  It sets the tone. It leaves the reader wanting to know more. And every word has a job. What’s more – if you take away one thing, make it this – the bulk of the work belongs to the subject and the verb. 

To summarize:

  • If a word isn’t bearing a load, get rid of it. Pay special attention to possibly irrelevant information, adverbs and adjectives, sets of synonyms, using five or more words when you can use one (“on account of the fact that” = “because”), and anything you’ve inserted because you saw it in someone else’s formal writing. Dr. Albert harbors a special loathing for “serves to,” which usually only serves to muck up mucks up your pretty sentences.
  • Know what your sentence (/paragraph/essay/book) is really about, and make that the subject.
  • Choose a nice verb.
  • Let the subject and the verb do most of the work.

Play around with that paragraph some on your own and see if you can’t squeeze some beauty out of those ugly sentences.  Give it to your students, and let them practice before you make them kill their own darlings. Share results in the comments!

Pictured: corruption, tainting every last thing

Thanks to Eng Seng for today’s topic!

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