Thursday, March 3, 2011

Streamlining

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Amadeus is when the Emperor, fatigued by the outpouring of Mozart's talent, tells him that his music has "too many notes."

"Too many notes?" Mozart repeats, stunned.

"Yes, it tires the ear. Just--take out a few!" (Or words to that effect. I'm reproducing this scene from memory.)

The implication is that the Emperor is a bit of a fool for not appreciating Mozart, and yet--there's also a point here that sticks with me. It reminds me of the scene in Little Women where Marmee tells Amy not to parade her virtues:

"'These things are always seen and felt in a person's manner and conversation, if modestly used; but it is not necessary to display them,' said Mrs. March.

'Any more than it's proper to wear all your bonnets and gowns and ribbons at once, that folks may know you've got them,' added Jo, and the lecture ended with a laugh."

These quotes spring to mind when I'm thinking about the advice to simplify our writing, especially to reduce the number of modifiers: to replace adverb-verb pairs with stronger verbs; to make adjectives earn their keep. Here's an example:

1. Jasmine walked quietly across the room. She went sneakily to the wall and put her ear flat against it. She tried hard to hear what Sean and Alicia were saying in the next room. At the sound of joyful laughter, Jasmine squeezed her hands tightly into fists. She took a quick glance at the door to make sure nobody could see her eavesdropping.

2. Jasmine tiptoed across the room. She crept over to the wall and pressed her ear against it, straining to hear Sean and Alicia in the next room. At the sound of laughter, Jasmine squeezed her hands into fists. She glanced at the door to make sure nobody could see her.

This is just an example that I whipped up on the spot, and I'm sure I could make it stronger if I tried, but I think it gets the point across. To my ear, #1 has "too many notes;" it's wearing too many bonnets and ribbons. So many of those words are repeating the work of other words ("quick glance," "squeezed ... tightly ... fists," "joyful laughter"), or were inserted to shore up a weak neighbor ("walked quietly," "went sneakily," "tried hard"). Pruning such sentences is like yanking weeds from an overgrown garden: it lets us see the flowers.

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