Saying More Through Omisson

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One of the challenges I face as a writer is my word count. Whenever I write a story, I am often afraid when I am finished, the story won’t be very long, although this problem manifests itself mostly when writing a novel. As a result, though, I end up adding words and paragraphs and descriptions that are largely unnecessary or just plain bad, and rarely do they ever achieve what I had intended for that passage.

Sometimes, however, writing fewer words, and even omitting certain facts, can actually prove more effective and make the writing stronger. I have known this for awhile, but I am not sure how much I really believed it. Until this last week.

Reading Amos 4, I was reminded of this little, yet powerful technique. In this chapter, God is reminding the Israelites of all the ways he has provided for them but they continued to disobey and turn their backs on him. So in verse 12, God tells them to be prepared to face punishment, to be judged:

“Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel,
and because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (NIV).

That is all Amos speaks of God’s judgment. It grabbed my attention. If my mind was wandering before this, it was certainly focused and alert now. Jeff Niehaus, in his exegetical and expository commentary on this verse, makes this important observation about it: “The failure to state the punishment fills the hearer with dread uncertainty… Here, the stark omission [of the punishment] in Amos’s words intensifies his gloomy forecast” (p. 405, The Minor Prophets, ed Thomas Edward McComiskey, 1998).

Omitting words, or condensing your writing down, can have more of an effect on your readers. If they don’t know what’s coming next, they will more likely be sitting on the edge of their seat, thoroughly engrossed in your tail, concentrating hard on what you are saying. Overdoing this, though, can have an averse effect–they get tired and give up.

But how do you know when to employ the technique and when not to? Well, that is something you, as the writer, must judge for yourself. But there are some questions you can ask yourself as you’re editing your story:

  • What is the intent of a particular passage?
  • What feeling or emotion do I wish to achieve with that passage? And why?
  • How will I accomplish this?
  • How do does it fit into my overall story?

Finally, here’s one last bit of advice: A good way to practice saying more with less words is to write poetry. Choose an emotion, and pick a scene or scenario where you feel that emotion. Then, write a poem about it in as few words as possible.

As you practice this technique, though it make take a lifetime to master, I can guarantee it will make your writing more effective (if used appropriately), and you will become a better writer and a better artist.

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