Good writing is writing that conforms to Strunk & White’s dictum, “omit needless words; omit needless words; omit needless words”. Good writing is humble; authors say no more, no less than what it takes to make their point. This takes an element of courage, because authors must be willing to strip their message bare and expose it naked to the world.
Great writing is writing so humble that it folds back around and becomes arrogant. Great writing is fearless. My favorite writers project an almost obscene confidence, as if they are saying “yes, I understand that others use the English language that way, and now I choose to use it this way instead.” They use extra, needless words, and they use them because they damn well want to use them, and of course they could make it shorter but that wouldn’t be as fun.
Here are three examples:
Steven Pressfield argues in The War of Art that failing to act on one’s passions is the root of all suffering:
If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff.
Yes, that’s right, the cure for dandruff is pursuing your dreams. Man, think of all the money you could have saved on Head & Shoulders. And you know what? He says it with such conviction I sort of believe him.
A few lines from “Lean times in Lankhmar”, by Fritz Leiber, imho the best short story ever written:
…the gods in Lankhmar sometimes seem as if they must be as numberless as the grains of sand in the Great Eastern Desert. The vast majority of them began as men, or more strictly the memories of men, who led ascetic, vision-haunted lives and died painful, messy deaths. One gets the impression that since that since the beginning of time an unending horde of their priests and apostles (or even the gods themselves, it makes little difference) have been crippling across that same desert, the Sinking Land, and the Great Salt Marsh–to converge on Lankhmar’s low, heavy-arched Marsh Gate–meanwhile suffering by the way, various inevitable tortures, castrations, blindings, and stonings, impalements, crucifixions, quarterings and so forth at the hands of eastern brigands and Mingol unbelievers who, one is tempted to think, were created solely for the purpose of seeing to the running of that cruel gantlet.
The word “crippling”, cannot, in fact, be used to refer to a form of progressive movement — that usage does not exist in the English language. Did Fritz Leiber know that? Probably. Did he care? Nope. “Chutzpah” as a term was probably invented by someone who had just read a Fritz Leiber story. But Leiber gets away with it because he leaves you with images — hordes of impaled and crucified priests, crippling across an endless desert, for instance — that you will never forget.
Finally, some dialogue from Byan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, which is a graphic novel and thus not real writing at all:
The protagonist Scott is getting his ass kicked by his nemesis, Todd, who has psychic powers because of his vegan diet. Todd’s girlfriend Envy, who has just learned Todd cheated on her, is watching.
Scott: “I can’t even get near him! I need some kind of…like….last minute, poorly set-up deus ex machina!!!”
Immediately prior to this, Scott was almost — but not quite — rescued by an intervention that can only be described as a last minute, poorly set-up deus ex machina… so… wait a second…
Two men pop up out of nowhere.
They are pointing their fingers at Todd as if they were holding imaginary guns.
Cop 1: “Todd Ingram, you’re under arrest for veganity violation!”
Todd: “What’d I do? What authority do you represent?! YOU CAN’T DO THIS! I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING! YOU CAN’T PROVE ANYTHING! I’M A ROCK STAR!”
Cop 2: “We have it on record that at 12:27 this afternoon you did knowingly consume a restricted food item.”
Cop 1: “Gelato, bitch.”
Todd: “What? It… it wasn’t me!”
Envy: “Hang on… Are you saying gelato isn’t vegan?”
Cop 1: “It contains milk & eggs, ma’am.”
Envy (thinking to herself: “it sounds delicious”)
Envy: “…is chicken parmesan vegan?”
Cop 2 (aside): “Is it?”
Cop 1: “I’m not sure. Isn’t ‘parmesan’ like a rodent or something?”
Envy (pounding on Todd): “YOU LIED TO ME!!!!”
There is so much WTF in this passage I can’t even begin to parse through it. And yet the logic — in regards to the salient plot details, and more subtly, Envy and Todd’s respective reactions in light of their characters — stands up flawlessly. Dadaist it may sound, but it’s constructed as carefully as any scene in a Eugene O’Neil or Arthur Miller play. And if you didn’t know what a parmesan was, wouldn’t you think it sounds like a type of rodent?