“Machines made of words”

“Take a moment to streamline your prose,” I told my Short Story Writing students.

To do this

  • Use simple tenses. They dined rather than they were dining.
  • Avoid stock gestures. No shrugging or shaking heads or raising eyebrows.
  • Use simple dialogue tags. “I love beer,” she laughed. No. Not that way. “I love beer,” she said.
  • Toss out these junk and filler words–Just, Then, Very. Noticed. Wondered. Few, But. Really.
  • Another thing,  keep “stage directions” to a minimum. Don’t do this for example,  “She noticed the bottle of beer. She wondered who owned it. She really wanted it. Then she went over and opened it.” No. Not that way. Your reader will appreciate something simpler. Try this: “She opened the Peace Tree Red Rambler.” You know she noticed it, wanted it, and went over to it, right? So why belabor the point?
image taken from the book Shifting Gears
No lazy slackers now that we know about thermodynamics. Work, work, work!

I grew up learning that Hemingway was a great writer. His prose was so simple and unadorned–just like a punch in the gut. There were characters barely described and given names like “the woman.” He was in a word, efficient. Believe it or not, this whole notion came from science and technology.

In the 1900s the idea of efficiency, a near worship of it, pervaded society. This idea came from studies of brewing and of machines. An efficient process lost less heat and did more work. This idea began in England with James Joule, the son of a wealthy brewer, who studied thermodynamics but it really lurched to life in the juggernaut that was American culture. Everyone had to work and be useful. The idle rich were a problem. Inefficiency in buildings was a problem. And inefficient prose was a problem as well. Take a look at some of these photos and advertisements.

idle rich
One Grecian urn, two Grecian urns, three Grecian urns and a fountain. The inefficient lives of the idle rich, women in particular, were held in contempt. All that hot air!
Architecture could have excess too. Note the arch and its lack of usable space
This looks like my house–clean cut and no waste.

Hemingway came about his efficient prose in an honest way. He was a war journalist and telegraphed his stories back to the U.S.. The telegraph coded letters as dots and dashes and each one cost money. And with the advent of photography, people didn’t need or want the long descriptions of scenery that punctuated older fiction. They only needed enough to set the mood and ground the fiction.

Today, the century old efficiency movement is still with us. We are told to want stories that are sleek, like an Apple product.Some publishers even remove the Oxford comma. Professor Cecili Tichi called this new prose “machines made of words.”

I like machines. Nobody likes rambling or babbling. But sometimes, I want something more delicious. I want the rush of pleasure from abundant words and the keen insights of  metaphors and turns of phrase, the dappled light of a brilliant day as was today.

Forget long letter. With the invention of the telegraph and telephone, words counted and communication was instantaneous. Time was money.


What about you? Who do you read? What’s your style? Sleek? Efficient? Or old school?

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