Whittling Words

A classic bit of advice in the book Elements of Style: Omit needless words.

But what constitutes needless? Ah, there’s the rub.

In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, five lucky kids find golden tickets in their Wonka Bars, inviting them to tour Willy Wonka’s magical chocolate factory. Here’s a segment from the golden ticket:

I shake you warmly by the hand! Tremendous things are in store for you! Many wonderful surprises await you! For now, I do invite you to come to my factory and be my guest for one whole day—you and all others who are lucky enough to find my Golden Tickets.

It’s charming but, honestly, the whole message runs long for a golden ticket, and, well, perhaps it’s a tad overdone. Maybe we could whittle it down to:

Tremendous things are in store for you! I invite you to come to my factory for one whole day.

What do you think?

The case of Raymond Carver is interesting. His early short stories have a spareness that made him famous. But that style came from the merciless cutting of his editor Gordon Lish.

The story “One More Thing” ends with Maxine throwing her husband, L.D., out of the house due to his temper and drunkenness. Here’s how Carver wrote the ending:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you no matter what happens. I love you too, Bea. I love you both.” He stood there at the door and felt his lips begin to tingle as he looked at them for what, he believed, might be the last time. “Good-bye,” he said. “You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.

It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.

“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”

“Is this what love is, L.D.?” she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could

Here’s the ending after Lish whittled and tweaked it:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”

But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

Which is better? (Hint: there is no right answer.)

Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.