Literary Words

April 9, 2012 — 13 Comments

I must confess that I like words. In fact, it’s not excessive to say that I delight in brilliantly witty “turns of phrase” and elegantly painted landscapes that allow me to clearly see what the author is painting with his or her words.

I’ve grown convinced that loving words is a handicap to becoming an excellent writer. Yes, scribblers like me can become adequate or even appreciated writers . . . but to stand in the highest ranks a writer must be willing to ruthlessly slash and slay excess words that impede their perfect vision.

Self-editing is a discipline. It’s something that can be learned and refined through practice. That it forever remains a bit painful for some of us is clear evidence we are overly attached to the words we have put to paper.

C.S. Lewis addressed this general subject in a 1932 letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves. While he was not a slave to the number of words required, he aimed for simplicity and clarity. Lewis wrote:

I think I see, from your criticisms, that you like a much more correct, classical, and elaborate manner than I. I aim chiefly at being idiomatic and racy, basing myself on Malory, Bunyan, and Morris, tho’ without archaisms: and would usually prefer to use ten words, provided they are honest native words and idiomatically ordered, than one “literary word.” To put the thing in a nutshell you want “The man of whom I told you,” and I want “The man I told you of.”

I smiled as I typed Lewis’ remark about “ten words.” He used that to illustrate his willingness to use excessive verbiage to communicate clearly. Brevity was, however, an admirable goal. And brevity is a virtue I’ve seldom been accused of possessing.

In the military, comrades and associates are frequently presenting plaques and remembrances to those who are “rotating” to new assignments. Having served in a dozen different “permanent” assignments, I have boxes full of such memorabilia.

Two of the few I display are genuinely precious. The first is an icon of Saint Athanasius, presented to me by the best “boss” I ever had, an Orthodox priest by the name of John Stefero. The reasons for the personal gift were theological and I accepted it with genuine appreciation and humility.

The second prized gift is a gracefully curved etched glass keepsake featuring the seal of the United States Air Force Chaplain School where I served for three wonderful years. The commandant was speechless as he presented the plaque to me, reading for the first time the inscription that my closest companions had composed for me.

He says in a book what others say in a sentence.

The commandant (later our Chief of Chaplains) was stunned. I was delighted. I led the gathering’s laughter and bellowed, “Yes, and it’s a book well worth reading!”

Jack Lewis may have chided me a bit for the underlying reason for the accolade, but I am confident he would have delighted in the affectionate friendship and esprit de corps with which it was presented.

So much for my shortcomings. For all other writers (including, perhaps, you?) . . . I would recommend following the master’s example, rather than my own.

13 responses to Literary Words

  1. 

    You truly speak for me and I’m sure for many others who love words and a carefully and craftily turn of phrase. Just curious if you are a fan of The Word Detective. His site is: http://www.word-detective.com/

    • 

      Thanks. No, I wasn’t familiar with The Word Detective before you pointed it out. A cursory look reveals it should be quite entertaining and educational…

  2. 

    Where does that fascination of words come from? Each word is just so intriguing – their history, their denotations and connotations, their functions and uses – even their shapes. Probably a mild form of autism or something…but an enjoyable affliction….just don’t try to explain it. Great post

  3. 

    Thank you for “liking” my Lewis post today. Appreciate you stopping by. Love what I’ve read here so far. Will be looking at more Mere Inklings. Great looking website, by the way.

  4. 

    I completed my first writer refresher course since college. Guilty, guilty, guilty am I of excessive, abundant, superfluous wordiness. It was something akin to an intervention. Now I’m on to briefer pastures. (Hmmm, I don’t think briefer is a word.) I repent—again!

    • 

      Congratulations on completing your course, and best of luck in the pastures of fewer words. As for “briefer,” I’m of the opinion that words are intended to communicate and if they communicate clearly (as your adjective certainly does in this context) who’s to judge? Of course, in the military we presented hundreds of formal briefings, and it is recognized that the skill of the briefer strongly influences the reception of the presentation!

  5. 

    When you have so many things you want to say, it’s hard to say them without using so many words! I’ve definitely been accused of being “long-winded” and “archaic” in my writing :-)

  6. 

    Your point about self-editing is well-taken. Anyone who’s serious about writing must also be serious about editing their own work, and having other qualified writers edit them, too. Writing is a lifelong learning process. Even the greatest writers (Lewis and Tolkein included, I’m sure) were still trying to master their craft till the day they died, even though society already considered them masters of their craft.

  7. 

    Reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote: “Easy reading is hard writing.” Of which I slashed further for the expletive I’ve seen in it is unnecessary. My opinion.

  8. 

    I hope my comment above is regarded “tongue in cheek.”

  9. 

    I was a pastor for over 30 years. Sorry to say, we preachers are the worst economizers of words. I heard recently that Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address was 701 Words, 505 of which are one syllable, and 122 are two syllables.

    “I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” (Blaise Pascal)

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