Monday, September 22, 2014

Repetition again*

I share in the general admiration for the tour de force in gotcha editing pasted below the jump -- so much so that I've added its author to my blogroll.  But of course I want to add my two cents.
Freeman is no pedant. His point is not that his victim, Daily Telegraph editor and prescriptive grammarian Simon Heffer, was not as concise as humanly possible in his concision admonition. In a followup post, Freeman adds that while Heffer "doesn't follow his own advice"
Whether that’s a fault in his writing or a fault in his advice – or a bit of both – you can judge for yourself. Personally, I don’t think filler words are “unpardonable” and I don’t think you should cut every word that isn’t needed to preserve meaning and clarity. Redundancies may improve the rhythm or allow flashes of the author’s personality to shine through. Some of his sentences simply read better without the kind of cuts he claims to insist on.
To, um, expand on that reasoning, I give you Arthur Quinn, author of Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase, which is among other things an extended ode to expressive repetition.  Quinn would have us understand that brevity is a modern fashion and often a false idol. To get the point across, he too picks on a contemporary grammar book author:
The most influential work written in early modern Europe on the figures of speech was De Copia by Erasmus. As the title suggests, Erasmus was primarily interested in teaching how to write more copiously. His readers would learn how to use many words where the common herd used only a few. At one point he developed more than a hundred variations on the sentence, "Your letter has delighted me very much." "With what joy do you suppose I am filled when I recognize your soul in your letter! When the letter carrier handed me your letter, my spirit at once began to thrill with an ineffable joy. How shall I tell you what joy titillated the spirit of your Erasmus when he received your letter?" Hemingway would not approve.

The baroque identification of eloquence with copiousness is so far from official twentieth century taste that scarcely a guidebook on writing does not contain an admonition such as the following: “Be brief. Do not repeat yourself. Say what you have to say in as few words as possible. To belabor your point is to risk boring your reader–or even insulting his intelligence.”

Erasmus would not lack words for a reply. He would point out that the author of this advice had thought it so important that he was not brief, did repeat himself, used as many words as he dared, and had insulted the intelligence of his reader by contradicting himself in the process. “How shall tell what joy titillated the spirit of your Erasmus when he read your fooling passage?”
Quinn revels in pleonasm, the use of superfluous words: "And the spirit of God moved over the face of the waters"; "I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes; in antaclasis, the use of the same word with different meanings: "O mortal man, think mortal thoughts!"; in anaphora, the repetition of words at the beginning of two or more sentences; and in many other forms of repetition. Many of them, it must be admitted, repeat only sounds, not meanings (or play productively on variations in meaning), but Quinn has an especial fondness for the Hebrew psalms, in which the main poetic trope is variant expressions of the same idea, and for the King James Bible, which is full of pleonasms that helped shape English as we know it.

I have mixed feelings about this enthusiasm for outmoded writing styles. It's reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's warnings against chronological snobbishness, the assumption that contemporary habits of mind and values and beliefs are superior to those of past eras. On the one hand I believe, as T. S. Eliot said, that art does not improve, though the conditions under which art is made change constantly and art has to change too to grapple with contemporary realities. On the other hand, in virtually every other form of human endeavor I can think of (very much including morals), progress is real.

Prose falls somewhere in between. It's both an art form and a technology, a means of transmitting information that's grown ever more efficient over the centuries, in large part (or maybe entirely?) through a relentless drive toward concision.

Concision isn't everything, as Freeman acknowledges. Sometimes it can be counterproductive. Some points need to be hammered home through repetition. Anaphora is a hammer (and Obama's rhetorical weapon of choice), driving home the  and mutual reinforcement of related ideas. The strongest instance I can recall -- the snippet, which I heard on NPR years ago, that drove home the rhetorical power of repetition to me -- is Malcolm spinning his version of how JFK coopted the 1963 March on Washington:
They [the mainstream civil rights leaders said, "These Negroes are doing things on their own. They're running ahead of us." And that old shrewd fox, he said, "If you all aren't in it, I'll put you in it. I'll put you at the head of it. I'll endorse it. I'll welcome it. I'll help it. I'll join it."
You might say that Malcolm's anaphora is not "wasteful" repetition, in that each of those verbs adds a new concept even as it repeats and reinforces its predecessors. But that's potentially true of every repetition that's not word-for-word, and even sometimes if it is, as the purest repetition can track a buildup or change of feeling.

But I digress. Most of the time, concision is useful. I spend half my working life cutting informational articles down to fit specified word counts. Sometimes I carve out three versions of the same article: 2500 words, 1200 words, 600 words. Pare 1100 down to 800. Excerpt 4000 in 800.

Usually, though not always, the short version is stronger -- almost invariably, when the cut is below, say, 40%. It's a good exercise to take any piece of writing you regard as finished and cut the word count by 30%.

I do this all day to other people's writing, but I'm sure I don't do it to myself enough on this blog (including in this post). I learned that recently working with good editors at The Atlantic and The New Republic. Less is more, it really is.
* The post title is one of Quinn's chapter titles.

No comments:

Post a Comment