Wind and fog don’t coexist, except in language where the greater the wind the more impenetrable the fog. Theodore Bernstein labeled such inclement writing as windyfoggery, a category that encompasses big business and bureaucratic noun-banging (the excessive clustering of nouns, as in “missile guidance center personnel office”), pseudoscientific jargon, and the ostentatious prose of wordmongers and neophytes of the literary persuasion.
Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction. —Albert Einstein
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
Avoiding wordiness means not using long, abstract, unfamiliar words when concrete, common words will do. As Stephen King said, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Hemingway noted on the writing of Lincoln—
It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.
Of the 701 words in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 505 words are one syllable words and 122 comprise two syllables. Winston Churchill—
“Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.”
“When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men’s minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.”
As Strunk and White advised in their Elements of Style, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able.” When we pick the ordinary word over the one that sounds impressive, we rarely lose anything important, and we gain the simplicity and directness that effective writing demands. You might, for example, replace initiate with begin or enumerate with count. As a guideline, refrain from writing anything you wouldn’t say in conversation. If you wouldn’t say, “Indeed, his girth is somewhat rotund, albeit, brawny,” then don’t put it on paper. Readers have never had to reach for a dictionary when reading Hemingway or Fitzgerald. When you write, reach for the rhythms of the spoken language. Reading your words should be as easy as listening to an articulate speaker. Richard Mitchell—
We like to imagine that we, just plain folks, are somehow, deep down where it really counts, superior to those pointy-headed wordmongers with all their hereinafters.
How Readable Are You?
Readability may not ensure literary merit, but literary merit ensures readability. Good writing is fluid and understandable. It doesn’t overtax the reader’s attention. Robert Gunning, a writing consultant to periodicals and crusader against jargon, devised the Fog Index to measure readability. The resulting score represents the school grade level. For example, the Fog Index of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is 8, or the eighth-grade reading level. National magazines have a Fog Index score ranging from 9 to 12. For a comprehensive discussion of the Fog Index and questions of readability, see his book The Technique of Clear Writing. To find the Fog Index of a passage, take these three steps: 1. Jot down the number of words in successive sentences. If the piece is long, you may wish to take several 100-word samples. Stop the sentence count with the sentence that ends nearest the 100-word total. Divide the total number of words in the passage by the number of sentences. This gives the average sentence length of the passage. 2. Count the number of words of three syllables or more per 100 words. Don’t count the words (a) that are proper names, (b) that are combinations of short easy words (like “bookkeeper” and “manpower”), (c) that are verb forms made three syllables by adding -ed or -es (like “created” or “trespasses”). Convert this number to a percentage. 3. Total the two factors just counted and multiply by .4 for the Fog Index score. Let us apply this yardstick to a few novels.
- NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith: 6.27
- Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: 9.54
- Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen: 9.6
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: 18
- Terrorist: A Novel by John Updike: 9.8
- Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn: 8
- The Satanic Verses: A Novel by Salman Rushdie: 16
- The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides: 10
Salman Rushdie and Junot Diaz each had long sentences that characterized their narrator and were not complicated to follow. The style worked. Of other other writers sampled, their big words were common words.
Chabon: Properties, commercial, information, migratory, neighborhood, nutrients
Franzen: Everybody, arrangement, considerate, imposition, totally, responsible, groceries
Updike: Indicating, desecrated, graffiti, millimeters
Eugenides: apartment, collection, iridescent, ceramics, collected, anarchist
Use this yardstick to gauge your readability and see how your writing aligns with published work that has proved readable. If your project scores 13 or higher, your reader is likely to find its level of complexity burdensome.
Principles to Remember in Avoiding Wordiness
- Begin with strong verbs and peculiar details
- Distill your idea into the fewest words possible, extracting every word that serves no function.
- Do not state what your reader can infer.
- Replace every long or obscure word with a short word
- Rewrite every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what.
Dense writing is the best writing. Boil down your prose until you’re left with a vivid expression conveyed in simple language. Christopher Buckley—
The best advice on writing I’ve ever received was from William Zinsser: ‘Be grateful for every word you can cut.’
I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.
[Writing is] largely a matter of application and hard work, or writing and rewriting endlessly until you are satisfied that you have said what you want to say as clearly and simply as possible.
Vocabulary Exercise: Snit, Spigot & Whirligig
Get out your dictionary or thesaurus and copy the common words you wouldn’t think to use. Keep a running reference for yourself and, when writing, make an effort to use these words. The idea is “vocabulary building”, not the type that encourages the use of obscure words, but one that will enable you to rattle off the particular and colorful variety. Daniel Pinkwater—
I went to college, but I learned to write by reading and writing.