Writing Less and Saying More

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 8, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            As an English teacher, it has been, over the years, both my pleasure and my agony to help young people writer better. One of the remarkable things about having lived as long as God has allowed me to live is that I have been able to observe the many changes in the rules and styles of writing. One example of that would be the changes in documenting research papers, from footnotes to endnotes to parenthetical notations. These changes in documenting scholarly papers have been a movement from wordiness to less wordy.

            And that tendency to express more with less was a change which could be seen in most other areas of writing. It’s obvious from reading Victorian novels like those by Charles Dickens that the Victorian writing style was wordier and more elaborate than the writing styles of the 21st Century. Perceptive readers could see the terseness in the novels of the mid and late 20th Century, — those wonderfully terse novels of Ernest Hemingway, a case in point. The one exception might be the novels of William Faulkner, in which the sentences were quite long and at times almost seemed run-on. Yet Faulkner’s style was certainly not Victorian; the words didn’t roll along leisurely, he just tried to put an incredible amount of thought into one sentence.

            What I was taught by my writing teachers was terseness, in other words, — free your writing of superfluous words. Don’t say in twenty words what you can say in ten, and don’t say in ten words what you can say in five. After all, the purpose of writing in communication, and superfluity interferes with communication. On the other hand you don’t want to let the desire for terseness become an excuse for inane writing that has nothing to say.

            This movement from verbosity to terseness was not the only change I’ve seen in these many years of a life of reading and writing. The rules of grammar and structure have changed, too, with a tendency toward fewer rules, and this change has made writing in English easier.

            France is one of the few, if not the only country, which had official government regulations of language, forbidding the French language from borrowing words from other languages. The problem with any kind of regulation is that usage gives laws to language, language ultimately can’t give laws to usage. People change, ideas change, attitudes change, language changes. That’s a fact.

            As a free-lance writer, something I’ve noticed in recent years is a growing tendency of literary magazines to promote ancient Japanese forms of poetry writing, which is known for its minimalism. In the Haiku (three-line poem) and the Tanka (five-line poem), forms borrowed from the Japanese, the poet has to say a great deal in a few words, doing so by implying and suggesting. When I first began writing poems and sending them off to literary magazines some 68 years ago, there were very few journals accepting Haiku or Tanka. Those who wrote Haiku in the 1950’s were the Beat (Beatnik) poets, and they were considered on the fringes of society, thus they were not taken very seriously. However, it was the short “Beat” poems that triggered the movement leading to the popularity of the Haiku, Tanka, and other short forms of Japanese poetry.

            The challenge to say something significant in a poem 12 to 17 syllables in length is an exciting challenge for poets. The English language being so different from the Japanese language has led to writing the English Haiku in less than 17 syllables. For me, 12 syllables in a three-line poem flows from my brain the easiest, even though I started out writing 5-7-5 syllables, because that’s what we think of as a haiku. Editors and poets today realize 5-7-5 is not a comfortable syllable count for writers of English.

            The English language is an absolutely wonderful language to write with. Even though I grew up in a German-speaking household and studied the German language in college, I have never been able to write a good poem in German. German grammar is extremely difficult and complicated, and the way German words are generated and structured lends itself to clumsy wordiness. New German words are created by combining old German words together in what often becomes a very long new word. Not so in English.       

            Once you’ve experienced the exhilaration of writing a good Haiku or Tanka, you don’t want to write anything else! I’ll end with my latest Haiku:

                                                            cat paws door

                                                            cat meows . . . cat yowls

                                                            old man writes

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor

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