Pascal’s lament and E. B. White

Long ago (1656), Blaise Pascal wrote an apologetic note that editors have been quoting at prolix writers ever since:

The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.

Brevity is a key to effective writing, if nothing else because it’s hard to hold a reader’s attention, but also for stylistic reasons. Short sentences lend emphasis.

Alas, it’s slow and painful.

Three hundred years after Pascal, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style again emphasized the insistence on removing needless words wherever possible, one of several Strunk and White choices questioned by other style guides. Apparently, though, even White had to stand up for the occasional extra word. Maria Popova quotes this letter from White to a reader who missed the point:

Dear Mr. –

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your letter.

Yrs,

E. B. White

(That asterisk seems to be Popova’s who seems to fear that the reader may not catch the reference to Macbeth. What an age we live in!)

A helpful passage to bear in mind next time an editor takes too dull a blade to your writing.

    Current ye@r *