Prose you can see through

I’ve been proofreading the fifth of my books in Pearson’s ‘Brilliant’ series – it’s Brilliant Academic Writing. Those of you who’ve read earlier posts on the old blog site may remember me referring to another book for students which I co-wrote with Kathleen McMillan and the nonsense generator we’d created which produced pretty convincing examples of bad academic writing. It uses random numbers to generate gems such as:

‘Studies have shown conclusively that intuitively deconstructive morphologies lead inexorably to the paradox of indecipherable polymorphic structures.’

Of course, it means nothing. Well it may but if it does it’s a fluke. Our point was simply to destroy the myth that academic writing has to be incomprehensible, use sentences as long as paragraphs and words no-one except the writer has ever heard of. At its best, academic writing is clear and accessible.

But that’s what all writing should be, except that, with fiction, we’re allowed to leave gaps, make suggestions but allow readers to complete them. In an excellent article I read recently on the great Elmore Leonard, the writer (sorry, can’t remember who it was or where I read it) quoted the opening lines of his novel Tishomingo Blues. They are:

‘Dennic Lenehan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down on it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder … when he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they’d put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn’t it like really dangerous?’

Leonard is renowned for the spareness of his writing, the elimination of anything that’s not necessary. This example is deceptively simple but look at how much information he gives the reader. The matter-of-factness of ‘would tell people’ (i.e. it happened all the time); the comprehensive description of all the aspects of his terrifying act in 2 lines and a simple image; the layers of information in ‘girls who hung out at amusement parks’; the deliberate impact of ‘they’d put’, ‘cute’ and ‘awesome’; and the sheer beauty of that final question, reinforcing the gap between the real danger and perceptions of it. All this and more.

Simple words and effects but great writing. And one of his recommendations in his 10 ‘rules’ is that you should cut, cut, cut. Get rid of the superfluous stuff, however wonderful or ‘literary’ you think it is. So, for those of you who like wee exercises (I know some of you do), how about this? It’s a passage I use sometimes in workshops. It’s definitely not literature or ‘good’ writing, but it’s the sort of thing that crops up pretty regularly in press reports. Your task, should you accept it, is to get rid of as much of it as you can but leave its main message(s) intact. At the moment, it’s 134 words long. What’s the lowest number you can get it down to?

‘The general consensus of opinion is that the complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions is absolutely essential to the continued survival of our species. Martyn Gillespie, who is the chief protagonist of the carbon trading lobby, has proposed a temporary reprieve by adopting a policy which may possibly suggest that compromise is a viable option. His group is small in size but, at this moment in time, it is gaining in credibility. His opponents would do well to recognize its potential for growth and adapt their future plans in order to give advance warning of the complete monopoly Gillespie is beginning to construct. Nothing short of total unanimity will do. Researchers who care about the environment around them must spell out in detail the disastrous consequences that could arise if Gillespie were to prevail.’

There are several tautologies, some obvious, some less so. You can leave your version as a comment if you like, or just give your final word count. The important point, which I’m adding belatedly (sorry Diane) is that you’re only allowed to delete words, not rewrite bits or change the order. This is strictly a cutting exercise.

(P.S. I have no idea why the only avatar that appears in the comments is mine. I’m working on correcting that but if anybody has any suggestions, I’d welcome them.)