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.)

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0 comments

  1. Martyn Gillespie, a mover and shaker in the carbon trading lobby, squares off once more against environmentalists with a volley aimed at derailing the movement to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Under the guise of compromise, Gillespie’s policy initiative would allow time to construct what his opponents call a ‘monopoly’, one which they claim will result in disastrous consequences. (58 words)

    1. Mea culpa, Diane. I didn’t make it clear enough. But you get a prize for being first and leaving a comment. I haven’t yet decided what the prize is but it’ll be very cheap.

  2. Rewriting, I can get it down to 42. Cutting, only 103 –

    ‘The consensus is that the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions is essential to the survival of our species. Martyn Gillespie, the chief protagonist of the carbon trading lobby, has proposed a reprieve by adopting a policy which may suggest that compromise is a viable option. His group is small but gaining in credibility. His opponents would do well to recognize its potential and adapt their plans to give warning of the monopoly Gillespie is beginning to construct. Nothing short of unanimity will do. Researchers who care about the environment must spell out the disastrous consequences that could arise if Gillespie were to prevail.’

  3. ‘The consensus is that elimination of greenhouse gas emissions is essential to survival of our species. Martyn Gillespie, chief protagonist of the carbon trading lobby, proposed a reprieve by adopting a policy which suggest(s) that compromise is a viable option. His group is small but gaining credibility. His opponents would do well to recognize its potential for growth and adapt plans to give warning of the monopoly Gillespie is beginning to construct. Researchers who care about the environment must detail the consequences if Gillespie were to prevail.’ (87 words remain, can do better but would require slight alteration in verbs, e.g. suggest(s))

    1. OK, I realise that replying to every single comment will be like going back to the bad old days of marking essays and exercises, so I’ll give others a chance to add their versions, then maybe write a wee blog and set up my version for the vitriolic bile you’ll no doubt want to pour all over it.

  4. I’d like to rewrite it but, being a firstborn, I follow instructions well. By simply cutting, I got it down to 85 words:

    The consensus is the elimination of greenhouse emissions is essential to survival of our species. Martyn Gillespie, chief protagonist of the carbon trading lobby, proposed a reprieve by adopting a policy which may suggest compromise is a viable option. His group is small but gaining credibility. His opponents would do well to recognize its potential and adapt their plans to give warning of the monopoly Gillespie is beginning to construct. Researchers who care about the environment must spell out the disastrous consequences that could arise.

  5. I cut drastically. It’s too big to tweet, but has only 29 words. No fluff.

    Martyn Gillespie, chief protagonist of the carbon trading lobby, proposed adopting a viable option. Opponents would do well to recognize growth, adapt plans warning of monopoly, detail disastrous consequences.

    1. That’s what I call cutting, Kayelle. You’ve certainly produced better copy but you’ve also discarded some of the information if the original. The exercise is just a sort of formal game to get rid of words which contribute nothing to or duplicate meanings. Thanks for joining in.

      1. I didn’t read anyone else’s comments before I responded, because I didn’t want to be influenced by what others had said, but after I posted mine, reading theirs showed me I had probably cut too deeply. For a lead in piece, mine wouldn’t be too bad. To make it clearer, I should have added (Gillespie’s) in front of opponents. To completely rewrite the paragraph and leave out all fluff was an excellent exercise.

        1. Thanks Kayelle. Next time I must make the instructions clearer – especially in a blog about clarity in prose!

  6. Green piece.

    There, you can’t get much sparser than that!

    But I think it’s a real shame that contemporary literature tends to cut out all the flowery bits.

    Here’s another one to have a go at:

    “He did sometimes think he had been ill-used by fortune, so far as to say that to be born is a palpable dilemma, and that instead of men aiming to advance in life with glory they should calculate how to retreat out of it without shame. But that he and his had been sarcastically and pitilessly handled in having such irons thrust into their souls he did not maintain long. It is usually so, except with the sternest of men. Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears.”

    1. Very challenging, Sara, and worthy of a proper reply in a separate blog. ‘Green Piece’ deserves a prize of its own. (Like most other ‘prizes’ on this site, the word is figurative, conjectural, abstract and does not serve the usual purpose of a true signifier.) Your other offering, which I semi-recognised then googled to check it, poses a real variation on the ‘delete but preserve the sense’ theme. Watch this space.

    1. Thanks, Marley. I think with 51, though, you must have lost some of the info. As I said to Kayelle, I really should make sure I make the rules clearer. Especially as this was supposed to be a blog about clarity in writing. Sheesh!

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