One key to good writing is great editing.
My Drake University journalism professor, Bob Woodward, taught me that a great editor can comb out 20 percent of an article without the author noticing. That’s something I try to do with my own writing–cut it by 20 percent when I think I’m finished. Usually, I can.
Woodward posted the Thoreau quote–“simplify, simplify”–outside his office door. As it turns out, the quote itself illustrates Woodward’s lesson. Those two words are the last in a much longer passage that begins “Our life is frittered away by detail…”
I’ve learned over the years that life is a lot like writing—shaped and improved by informed and disciplined editing. Of course, I’m hardly the first to make that observation.
- “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Coco Chanel, in a 1923 Harper’s Bazaar interview.
- “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Attributed to Albert Einstein.
- “It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, French aviator and novelist, best known for his children’s book, The Little Prince. (There’s an excellent and extensive Wikipedia bio on him, here.)
In my search for quotes on simplicity, I came across an 1889 (yes, that’s the right century) essay by Charles Dudley Warner, a friend and contemporary of Mark Twain. It starts out slowly but comes to this essential thought:
“It is the universal, the simple, that lasts … All the masterpieces that endure and become a part of our lives are characterized by it. The eye, like the mind, hates confusion and overcrowding.”
“Simplicity is making the journey of this life with just baggage enough,” he wrote.
Ah, yes, too much baggage. I once put an old suitcase on the street in my Philadelphia neighborhood, thinking someone would take it before the trash collectors arrived. That battered old thing sat there for a week and was never touched. Clearly, I should have ditched it earlier.
How about you? What old baggage lurks in your life?