As both a newspaper journalist and mystery novelist, I fight to write tight. I endeavor to reach a conclusion without using too many words to get there. I prefer lean, muscular prose to corpulent bloviation.
Compared to some authors, though, I’m a profligate who squanders words the way a drunken sailor spends money.
Consider, for example, Theodor Geisel. Better known as Dr. Seuss, Geisel wrote and illustrated some 60 children’s books that sold a total of more than 600 million copies. More impressive, he did so with few tools at his disposal.
Challenged to write a compelling book using a short list of words deemed important for first-graders to recognize, Dr. Seuss produced “The Cat in the Hat.” He used only 236 different words. He was just warming up.
Bennett Cerf, co-founder of the Random House publishing firm, bet Dr. Seuss $50 he couldn’t write an entertaining children’s book using just 50 distinct words. The result was “Green Eggs and Ham.” Cerf never paid up, but the book sold more than 200 million copies.
I’m envious of those kinds of numbers, small and big. I share one thing in common with Dr. Seuss, though: I realize the benefits of limits.
Newspaper journalists have only so many column inches on pages for their stories. Novelists enjoy more room to write, but also face limits that vary with genre. Novelists who use 150,000 words to build brave new worlds in science fiction might have to make do with half that for even the steamiest romances. Newspaper websites and electronic books afford additional space. But other limits remain, among them the time of readers.
Less really can be more, however. Journalists present the most important information first. Novelists tell succinct stories. It’s a refining process — one beginning with a large quantity of raw material, but ending with a smaller amount of something pure and valuable.
No one will ever match Dr. Seuss for his ability to turn a few words and poetic meter into such endearing tales. Least of all me. I could not write it in a box. I could not write it with a fox.
But I’ll continue my fight to write it tight.