Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance


If you want to write about the flower, don’t write about the shadow just to be different.

Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.

On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.

Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.

For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.

Examples help.

A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his own dictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found in Essays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).

I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)

The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing.  Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).

Density isn’t just a property of non-fiction.

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The Softness of the Pillows: Quirks and Perks

Imaginary beings live on the thin strip of fancy between sobriety and nonsense—the one we all walk at least twice a day on most days, just before and just after sleep (the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states). To complete the previous two posts on imaginary beings, Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane and The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards, today I offer two quotes, from two very different authors, describing this creative threshold of consciousness.

The first is from Bruno Schulz’s short story Mr Charles, included in his collection The Street of Crocodiles (translated by Celina Wieniewska). He’s the only European I’ve come across who writes magical realism with a panache to match South American authors (I touch on this in Between Infinite and a Sneeze and Charged With Eternity). Note the richness of metaphor and simile.

Groping blindly in the darkness, he sank between the white mounds of cool feathers and slept as he fell, across the bed or with his head downward, pushing deep into the softness of the pillows, as if in sleep he wanted to drill through, to explore completely, that powerful massif of feather bedding rising out of the night. He fought in his sleep against the bed like a bather swimming against the current, he kneaded it and molded it with his body like an enormous bowl of dough, and woke up at dawn panting, covered in sweat, thrown up on the shores of that pile of bedding which he could not master in the nightly struggle. Half-landed from the depths of unconsciousness, he still hung on to the verge of night, grasping for breath, while the bedding grew around him, swelled and fermented—and again engulfed him in a mountain of heavy, whitish dough.

He slept thus until late morning, while the pillows arranged themselves into a larger flat plain on which his now quieter sleep would wander. On these white roads, he slowly returned to his senses, to daylight, to reality—and at last he opened his eyes as does a sleeping passenger when the train stops at a station.

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