Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Art of Omission

All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.”

Gustave Flaubert

A writing friend pointed me to an article in The New Yorker recently titled “Omission,” written by John McPhee. The subject of the article—a personal essay really—is writing and the process an author goes through as they make creative decisions to create their work.

I’ve discussed this concept before on this blog, under the title “Le Mot Juste,” which is Gustave Flaubert’s term for the struggle each writer goes through searching for the one perfect word for each particular sentence, in each particular paragraph and each particular story. It’s a fairly familiar concept to most writers. In “Omission” though, Mr. McPhee approaches the subject from the other direction. He states that it’s as much about what the author decides to leave out as what she decides to use.

For example: you have chosen—after several rewrites—the perfect first word to begin your story. At the same time you have decided to not use almost a million other words in the English language. You have chosen to leave them out.

By the same token, we are constantly deciding to omit things whenever we begin to write, for there are almost an infinite number of possibilities out there. Is the main character male or female? A child? A teen? An adult? What is their socio-economic background? Where do they live? Have they always lived there? Is this where the story takes place?

You get the idea. Without realizing it, we are deciding to leave out everything we don’t want in our finished story.

It is said that the famous artist Michelangelo once said that the secret to sculpting a horse out of a block of marble was to examine the stone and then remove everything that wasn’t a horse. It is an oversimplification, but is basically true. It is the same method when we write a story or article. We look at the universe around us and omit everything that isn’t part of the story.

I stumbled upon this concept as I learned the art of revision. As I’m revising, I constantly ask myself whether a particular scene or description is essential. If I take it out of the narrative is the story essentially changed? If the answer is no, that particular passage must come out. I even set up a parallel file and physically remove the passage to that separate file to make sure (that way I can always replace it if I need to).

The art of omission is learning—as an artist—what to leave out.

Possibly the most accomplished proponent of the art of omission was Ernest Hemingway. He stated the theory like this:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strong as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

To experience the concept in full display read Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Hemingway is at his best as he renders a couple engaging in a heated (if understated) disagreement. At no time does the author or any of the characters ever mention the subject of the disagreement. He does this so well that the reader doesn’t really notice this. It is enough that the author knows what the argument is about.

The idea of omission is most useful when the work calls for a great deal of research. When we research for a historical story, or one involving a career field we don’t know, it is a given that much of what we learn will never explicitly make it into the prose. Yet all that information will effect the manner in which we present the material.

In your historical adventure during the American revolution, you may never actually need to show the reader what song your character hums to himself as he marches, but the fact that you know what that song would be still influences how you portray him. If asked, you could name the song and the reader would nod her head and agree that makes sense.

Mr. McPhee’s article also introduced me to a new term in the world of omission. The term is “greening.” It comes from the world of magazine journalism. After an article has been researched and written and edited and rewritten and approved and sent out to the layout department, it would often come back marked “green 3,” or “green 5.” What this mean was the article was too long for the space available in the magazine. “Green 3” means the writer needed to cut three lines from the article.

The important thing (in my view) is that this didn’t mean simply cutting off the last three lines. It meant going through the article and eliminating any extra or unnecessary words until the article was reduced by three lines. Try doing this with one of your existing works. It is difficult, but can be done. You can eliminate all adverbs and adjectives. Eliminate the word “very.” If you’ve used a compound verb, try a simple one (such as was instead of had been). It is a great exercise in how much leaner we can make our writing.

I believe it was Thelonius Monk who said it about music: “It’s not about how many notes you hit. It’s about the spaces between the notes.”

That is the art of omission.

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