Use the Meat-Axe

This article is considered a classic on writing. Originally appearing in The Scarlet Cockerel in the 1940s, it has been reprinted in several amateur papers. Burton Crane (1901-1963) first became affiliated with the hobby of amateur journalism in 1912. He became a financial reporter for the New York Times, and authored several books for personal investors. 


by Burton Crane

Most of us use too many words. If we remember that our teachers warned us against redundancy and tautology the chances are that we have forgotten exactly which is which. The terms have been kicked around with the busted roller-skates of an education in the hall closets of our minds. The result is that great gouts of useless words are splattered all over our writings.

Some writers get by without a great deal of grammar. Some writers get by with spelling that borders on the ludicrous. You should see some of the "literature" that comes up for copy desk surgery. But hardly any get by without the rudiments of style, a flair for making each word carry its full load.

The best style is the most economical. Test yourself. See how many words you waste regularly. Pull out a yarn you wrote before this article came along. Now go after it with the meat-axe. Cut out bodily such bits of suet as "various," "it seems to me," "when all is said and done" and "located." Excise every "accordingly," "therefore," "but," "however," and "although" which can be spared. Study each sentence for a more direct and economical manner of expression. Massacre the repetitions. Slay anything which adds nothing of value to the underlying idea. Hack sausage-linked sentences into two's and three's. Most of us use too many connectives unless we guard against it.

Here's a sample of the kind of thing you can find any day in society reporting on small newspapers and in most of our amateur magazines:

You may be interested to know that arrangements have been made to erect temporary booths at which those who attend the garden party may try their hands at pottery painting. Rows on rows of incomplete ashtrays, plates, bowls, and other similar assorted shapes in sun-dried but not yet baked clay will be generously displayed on the counters of the various booths and from these the attendant guests may select the objects which they wish to paint. After they have painted them, each giving full play to his own artistic imagination, the resulting works of art of every sort and description will be gathered together and baked in a fully-equipped kiln located close behind the booths. The finished masterpieces will be ready in time to return them, all glazed and beautiful, to the guests when they leave the party.

Have I exaggerated? I don't think so. The 140 words above are tragically typical of those who have the urge but not the training to write. How many of them are necessary? Just 32:

At temporary booths garden party guests may select and paint ashtrays, plates, bowls, and other shapes in sun-dried clay, which will be baked at kilns nearby and given them on departure.

You might even cut out the words "select and."

If you have followed my suggestion, you have the wreckage of an old article before you, hacked to bits. Don't re-write it yet. Study it for a moment. What are your color words? Are they adjectives? Then change them wherever possible. Adjectives are weak, especially when used attributively, that is, as modifiers. If you have to use adjectival words, try to get nouns and verbs and try to put them in the predicate position.

When you can, steer clear of adjectives completely. Give your sentences bounce by weighing them with nouns and verbs. Take this one, with four adjectives and no zip:

She always wore a great many veils and a good deal too make-up.

But how about this?

She was always swaddled in veils and buttered in make-up.

Verbs make the picture blaze behind your eyeballs.

Writing didn't stop being a "genteel" accomplishment until well along in the Nineteenth Century. Much of it is still fumbling between the antimacassar and the whatnot. Those who are literary but not literate love to say: "We brought our peregrinations to a close and arrived without untoward incident at the place of our abode." If you have to mention the subject at all, say: "We got home safely." Today circumlocution is good form only in diplomacy.

Always use the simplest word which expresses your meaning exactly. Plain Anglo-Saxon English, like potatoes, is good every day. Sometimes the imported words are needed for shades of meaning or for brevity--"imported" and "brevity" are examples--but in most cases the tongue of Wulf the swineherd has much more punch.

Go over your copy again. See if you can't better it by using "I don't mean to" instead of "It is not my intention to;" "Please give me one more chance," instead of "I should appreciate an additional opportunity;" "Let us see what we can do" instead of "Let's examine the situation." And watch out for boomerang sentences. In the boomerang you start off with an idea and discover you can't get the hell out of the sentence without repeating it in some other form. It's common in sentences like this one: "Her writings attracted attention and she discovered after some years that she had built up a following for her works." Some writers seem totally unable to drop the last three words.

Now take that messy typescript and re-write it. Strive with every sentence for more directness, more sock, more brevity. Test every line. Can it be spared without sacrificing something of the basic idea? Then out with it!

Thus far I've made no demand on your imagination, merely on your patience. Hundreds of writers earn good livings with lots of the latter, little of the former, but if you have any personality to express you can do it only by squeezing the imagination as you write. Make sure you have no bromides, no figures of speech that everybody knows. Bromides are fossils of once-brilliant figures of speech. Somebody some time got a thrill over the phrase, "on tenterhooks." That's why it gnawed its way into the language and has stayed there when most of us would not recognize a tenterhook as a curtain-stretching pin. The human race has always been "between Scylla and Charybdis" or "between the devil and the deep blue sea." It has always been "better late than never."

If your writing is to have any personality, you must make your own figures of speech. Some are easy, unrolling naturally from the skein of your thought. Other take a bit of unraveling. Try to make your own figures of speech comment rather than describe. Add something of your own. You might say:

Dawn stole into the mean little room, a silent visitor who brushed away the grateful shrouds of night and lay bare the harshness of reality once again.

I call that woman's page writing. The figure doesn't help the picture, which is outlined only by "mean little room" and "harshness of reality." Why not try it this way?

Gray dawn dripped over the dirty sink, lay in stagnant pools on the tattered carpet.

Enough of this, with one last thought: When you sit down to write, try to have something to say which somebody may want to read. And, if you are a printer, remember that it takes about twenty years of experience in conscious condensation to be able to "write" anything other than drivel "in the stick."

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