Unnecessary words.

How many ingredients?

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

Do you cook? Are you a good cook? Don’t lie. If you’re a good cook, tell me: if you’re making a soup and you empty your spice cupboard into it, just toss in a bit of everything, how does it taste?

If you don’t know, the answer is: not very good. It’s like mixing a bunch of different paints. You always get a nasty version of brown.

OK, but now tell me this: if you just boil a chicken and don’t add anything, except maybe some salt, how is that?

Unless it’s an outstanding chicken, it will be dull.

But there’s a lot of room in between the two. You can flavour it with a bit of fresh thyme, some parsley, a few shallots. Or you can use garlic, curry paste, coconut milk, bamboo shoots. Or you can add sherry, a bouquet garni, chives.

You can make a soup that has just a few ingredients, simple and clear and fresh. You can make a soup that has many seasonings, but all in harmony like a grand choir. The options are endless: something for every situation. Several things for every situation.

So why do some people insist that text always needs to be lean and trim? Who do some people drone “Cut unnecessary words” but cut so many that add flavour?

Yes, yes, it’s true: many writers empty the spice cupboard. It’s a common feature of bad writing. But that doesn’t mean that good writing is always very lean and spare. It doesn’t even mean that bad writing needs to be cut to improve it. Sometimes you just need to change a bit. Replace the peppermint in your soup with a bit of chili pepper.

Let’s start with a famous example. I think you’ll recognize this sentence:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Ignore the 19th-century commas and the use of fathers and men. We all know we would do different with those now. Let’s look at what the “eliminate unnecessary words” school would do to this:

Eighty-seven years ago our ancestors founded this nation as a free land dedicated to equality.

Who wants to say that’s better? No, really, stand up. So I can throw this eraser at you.

Of course, you can destroy it by emptying the spice cupboard into it, too:

Fore scores of years plus a septennium in the past from today, or a baker’s dozen of solar revolutions less than a neat century towards the dawn of time, those magnificent and magnanimous great spirits we are so privileged to call our forefathers brought forth out into this world and upon this august continent (but in July) this our nation which was, at the time, a brand-new nation, meaning a country in its infancy; they conceived and gestated and gave birth to it in the realm of Lady Liberty’s expansive belly and it was dedicated by them to that vaunted great proposition that is the true basis of all equality among men, which is that all men are from their very birth and even before and ever after and always equal among each other.

This is what you do if you charge by the word, maybe. As long as you don’t expect to get any work from that client ever again. Or have any sort of decent reputation.

Now let’s look at a longer example, a recipe that we can modify more. This is not very good:

She was a Fatal Temptress and he was a Hercules of the kitchen. His cuisine was embraced by her and this is what he thrived on, because otherwise he wanted to die. So he made everything she asked for. Dishes flew back and forth from the kitchen and pots flew back and forth in the kitchen.

Change not all that much – some words, a bit of sentence structure, improve the rhythm and clarify contrasts, pay attention to the sounds – and you get a much sharper version:

He was Carême, but she was a Siren. She loved his cooking; he lived on her approval. Her displeasure scorched his soul, so he cooked her all that she wanted in order to keep her happy. Dishes flew into and out of the kitchen, pots onto and off of the stove.

Notice that I used in order to and off of. Many people say those should always be trimmed to to and off. They are very narrow little people. If you change off of to off you wreck the parallel structure with into, out of, and onto, and you hurt the rhythm. If you change in order to to to, you have an ambiguity: is it that she wanted it to keep her happy, or just that she wanted it and he did it to keep her happy? Not the same thing. If you move to keep her happy before he cooked to avoid the embiguity, you get a structural and rhythmic problem.

Here’s what the “cut and cut and cut” school produces from that:

She loved his cooking. He lived on her approval. He cooked her all she wanted to keep her happy. Dishes flew into and out of the kitchen, pots onto and off the stove.

Is that it? Ai yah, not so much there. No redundancies, but where’s the flavour?

Even if you want to be businesslike, you can give it more flavour than that. Try this:

He had a genius for cooking; she had a genuis for temptation. She loved his cooking; he was addicted to her approval. This meant that he cooked everything she wanted, with the aim of keeping her always happy and never displeased. Consequently, there was much traffic of dishes to and from the kitchen, and much use of pots in the kitchen.

Not really as lyrical, is it? But it’s still better than the original. To say nothing of the clipped version.

Try something completely different for contrast:

She: gourmet – and Siren. He: master chef – addicted to her. Her desire: his food. His need: her happiness. The menu: whatever she wanted. The means: a polyphony of pots and pans; the medium: a solar system of dishes, in incessant orbit around her.

Did you notice – no verbs? Well, OK, wanted, but that’s in a complement to a noun phrase. Does it seem much shorter and sharper? Compare the length with my first “better” version. See? They’re nearly the same.

One more version, turned around and with more of a popular-literature flow:

The kitchen whirled with activity, and dishes flew full to the table and as soon back empty. The man was cooking to feed his addiction, and his addiction was the woman seated at his table. He was the kitchen’s master but the diner’s slave. Oh, he was a great cook, and she knew it, and loved it – but she was a greater temptress. Of all the fine things he served, the dish he served most eagerly and she consumed most hungrily was his heart and soul.

That’s much longer, but millions of people buy books written in that style. Do you want their money?

Which version you use will depend on what kind of document it is, who’s reading it, and what effect you want to have on them. Of course. That’s what I’ve been telling you for how many lessons now?

Let’s make this your homework. I want you to write three completely different versions of that passage. Then compare how they taste, and which you like better for which situation. Yes, three. I wrote six. You can do three.

I am not going to mark them for you. You’re an adult now.

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One thought on “Unnecessary words.

  1. [...] You can really add whatever herbs you think will flavour it nicely, but don’t go crazy. Heed the advice of Annie Wei-Yu Kan about emptying your spice cupboard. If you use bay leaves, take them out before blenderizing the [...]

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