“I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”
—Stephen King, On Writing
“I tried writing a short blog post, but then I realized I had too much bullshit to say. Look how much longer my quote is than Stephen King’s.”
—Ally Brennan, allybrennan.com
This post was strangely difficult to write. The topic is about using conciseness in writing, yet I wasn’t practicing it in this post. “All these words I’ve written are essential” I kept telling myself, but it was a delusion that cost me several weeks worth of writing projects because I was stuck on this post.
My brain is like an underground maze of rabbit holes. And smack dab in the biggest tunnel are a male and female rabbit in heat. The amount of thoughts and ideas that are produced in a single sitting is staggering. Just a squirming mass of extra words and run-on sentences and thick paragraphs and lengthy chapters.
When I was younger, the rabbits were held at bay by all of my writing output. But as I got into my later teen years, the time I had dedicated to writing was slowly filled by other things like work, driving, socializing, band practice, swim team, and church. Things only got worse for my bunny brain when I became an adult and also discovered college and solo traveling.
It was when I ended up living in Nevada that writing became a focus again.
“Moving to Nevada” seems to be a huge theme in everything I’ve written lately, and I finally know why. I, like most people, began to tie myself to and associate myself with more and more things as I got older, which in turn ate up an increasing amount of my time and focus.
But when circumstances forced me to move in with my parents in Nevada, all my ties and associations were stripped from me. I had no job, no money, no friends, no church, no familiarity whatsoever. The lack of those kinds of identities gave me the space and silence to begin ~*~*~discovering my true self~*~*~.
And without the suffocation of a million distractions, my dependency on writing reared its ugly head once more.
When I moved here and essentially lost everything, I struggled the most with the “no friends” part, because I had really put a lot of my identity into the people I surrounded myself with. The only people I seemed to attract in the first several months of living in Nevada were old men and annoying, immature college boys. It did terrible things to the view I held of myself.
So I slaved over maintaining the relationships with my long distance friends and keeping up the quality we’d built up over the years through in-person interactions and shared experiences. I was dedicating huge chunks of time, energy, and words into texts, emails, direct messages on various social media platforms, the occasional letter.
I was writing a lot to a very small audience.
It pained me to be brief in my communication when I could instead flesh out a more complete picture of myself. Long distance relationships over long periods of time sort of start to feel like they’re just a figment of the imagination. I wanted to make like a novel and send my friends enough well-written words that I could transport them to a different world.
My world. 2.0 (Justin Bieber reference).
But I began noticing that the more I wrote to my friends, the less they would reply. It was as if the volume didn’t indicate how much I cared, but how overwhelming I could be.
There was another reason I was sending out such long texts, besides trying to create a written persona of myself for my friends.
It was in the process of writing those texts that I was actively learning about my new self. The self away from the ties of the past.
Writing is the way I think through things. I never really know how I’m doing or feeling until I sit down and write it all out. But personal, reflective writing wasn’t something I was doing at all in that early period of living in Nevada.
So if a friend texted me “how are you?”, I would start typing out a reply and my manic rabbit brain would turn it into a therapy writing session.
Which was totally fine, but the mistake I made was thinking “haha I guess I have a lot to say to this person” and then hitting send with ZERO editing.
What an amateur.
What I should have done was paste the completed text into a word document for later examination and then written a new one for the friend. One that wouldn’t subject them to the darkest matters of my soul + two hours of scrolling.
I finally realized I wasn’t Emily Dickinson writing letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and I shouldn’t devote so much energy to communications. This isn’t to insult my dear, overwhelmed friends. Some of them are literary heroes in my book (and in their own books someday).
But I realized if I wanted my writing to mean something someday, I needed to be expand my efforts to a larger audience.
I began a daily writing habit and started a serious attempt at keeping a blog again and making my words more accessible to a larger group of people (aka, the four people who read my blog, thx so much).
Sometimes when I think about my dream of being a published writer, I think about the role social media plays in that. Some of my search history floating around the Cloud says “can I succeed as a writer without selling my soul to the media monster?” (worded differently, of course, to bring up better search results).
It’s funny how opposite my sister and I are when it comes to internet presence. She has zero social media, and texts and emails her small contact list through encryption programs. I, obviously, have a public website, Instagram, and Tumblr for the intent of becoming famous someday.
However, the universe is a strange place.
Yes, this really happened, and yes, this is the Ally Brennan Fake Aesthetic Twitter Experience.
Twitter is the biggest social media platform I very actively do not have an account on (I disgustingly still have Facebook, but that’s just for adult stuff like joining ~groups~). I think I could actually do pretty well for myself over there, but there’s a part of me that wouldn’t even touch https://www.twitter.com/ with a 39.5 foot pole (Grinch reference. Obviously).
Hanging out on Twitter is like a eating bag of potato chips. Reading and writing tweets are addicting and it’s impossible to stop at just one. Yet, the overall experience isn’t great and can ruin one’s appetite. Leaves you feeling filled without providing any sustenance.
But even though I don’t have a real account with real character count limits, I greatly appreciate the art of brevity utilized in a good tweet. It helps people get to the point sooner. Less space for bullshit.
An article talking about Twitter’s decision to increase the character count from 140 to 280 says that only 1% of tweets are hitting the limit. According to the article, the most common length of a tweet is 33 characters. “Brevity, it seems, is baked into Twitter—even when given expanded space, people aren’t using it.”
In William Strunk Jr’s. and E.B. White’s, The Elements of Style, they write:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writing make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
This comes from “Rule 17” in their book, which is “omit needless words”.
My brain loves writing excess verbiage (“excess verbiage” is a redundant phrase, but I love writing excess verbiage so much that I’m not going to fix it) and following a million rabbit trail-themes, which makes reading and writing essays absolutely delicious—but this leads to confusion and poor grasp of the overarching narrative.
To remind myself of the necessity of omitting needless words, sometimes I when I’m editing I quietly chant “cut, cut, cut”. It makes me feel like a sleep-talking barber. Or, you know, a slightly deranged, somewhat competent writer and editor.
Stephen King says in On Writing that the second draft is just the first draft minus ten percent. I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule—I often cut way more than ten percent and add a lot of new words. But it’s a good reminder that writing the first draft is always going to contain unnecessary words that will need to be deleted.
To quote On Writing again:
If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right.
Out of context, this advice could work for a lot of things, like romantic relationships.
Sometimes it really does pain me to “murder my darlings” and I wish there was a way to preserve them. I think about this a lot when branding artists on Instagram post random drawings with the caption: “Here’s an illustration from a project that the client and I ended up not using.” Instead of throwing these abandoned images away or having them take up space on their computer or phone, they have an easy outlet of posting them online and gaining likes and followers.
Art can stand alone with no context, but a sentence just gets backspaced. My poor darlings.
An unexpected book helped me with this concept of cutting beloved unnecessary sentences out of my writing. I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up last year (which made it onto my top 10 reads of 2018 list ) and one of her paragraphs really struck me.
I promise you: whatever you let go will come back in exactly the same amount, but only when it feels the desire to return to you. For this reason, when you part with something, don’t sigh and say, “Oh, I never used this,” or “Sorry I never got around to using you.” Instead, send it off joyfully with words like, “Thank you for finding me,” or “Have a good journey. See you again soon!”
This makes me think that somewhere out there could be an island for misfit sentences.
A couple years ago I read 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso. It’s a strange book. She says it’s akin to reading a book and underlining the good parts—except her book cuts out the bullshit and is nothing BUT the good parts. A reviewer on Goodreads described 300 Arguments as “micro-micro essays, some of them being as short as one sentence”.
Here are some of my favorite quotes. I underlined all the good parts:
Bad art is from no one to no one.
Slowly, slowly, I accumulate sentences. I have no idea what I’m doing until suddenly it reveals itself, almost done.
If there’s a good line in a book, I will copy out the line and sell the book.
Sometimes a single sentence can be enough to fill the imagination completely. And sometimes a book’s title is enough.
These sentences are all placed in the book as is. I didn’t copy them from paragraphs. They are surrounded by white space, liberated of stuffy context.
Perhaps the standalone sentences that fill 300 Arguments were all castoffs from longer essays. They distracted from the main narratives, but she didn’t want to throw them away so she created a space for them to breathe.
She gave them an island.
P.S. I cut out over 3,000 words from this blog post during the editing process. Maybe I’ll publish them in a book called 3,000 Arguments: Notes From the Trashcan. Because while Sarah Manguso is a professional writer who knows the sacred art of brevity, I am a long winded, arrogant son of a bitch who has too many important things to say).
P.S. My mom reads my blog and hates when I write unnecessary swear words. “Son of a bitch” was probably unnecessary. Sorry, Mum.