Disposable Words


My wife’s first job out of college was as a teaching assistant at day care. She loved the kids, loved telling them stories, and loved comforting them when they were sad or confused. Sometimes, however, when they were troubled, the best thing to say was not immediately apparent to her. And so, she did what she’d done all her life: started talking until she figured it out. That’s when the preschoolers taught my wife, a budding author, a valuable writing lesson. They cupped their hands over their ears and said, “Too many words.”

If there was only one piece of craft advice I could give a new writer, it would be that your job is to say the most in the fewest words possible. This does not mean all your stories should be written in nothing but brief, declarative sentences, without a single comma, hyphen, or semi-colon. This is not about sentence length, or paragraph length, or story length. It’s about using only what is necessary to get the story told. If a word’s not necessary – goodbye.

It occurs to me that because of this rule I’ve spent the last thirty or so years asking myself again and again and again, from sentence to sentence, word to word, “Do I need this?” My wife complains that I have tendency to throw stuff away we need, like my son’s science project (I thought it was some moldy food), and once, regrettably, a pearl necklace (it was in an envelope I thought was empty). Maybe this is a bi-product of all the writing, of always being on the lookout for clutter.

I like to think so, though the difference between words and necklaces is you can always bring a word back. So I’m working on the throwing-things-out problem. Meanwhile, at my desk, I am unsentimental with my words. They’ll be forgotten, after all. Readers eat them up, even their favorite combinations, and then are left only with the felt experience of life those words carried. This is the sustenance the readers sought in stories, the reminder they aren’t alone, that life is interesting and meaningful, and that, unlike our things and deeds, we are not disposable.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.