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Our kitchen cupboards have been reworked, and all of the things we took out of them a few weeks ago, as required by the contractors, are back in -- except for things we don't need like linen napkins and tablecloths, extra pots and pans, candles, decorations, candies, and what-have-you's. All of the arranging and discarding being done by Betty got me interested in cleaning out my desk. I thought first of making a list of things that must be done around the house but got tired of that when the list extended itself to thirty-two items. One of the items of course was to clean out my desk. It wasn't the first item, nor was it the highest priority item, but it was one that seemed to be the most pleasant at the time.
I started the job, and got interested in the things I found -- things that I thought were lost, and things that I didn't remember having. Some of the scraps of paper I threw into the wastepaper basket reluctantly, some of the gimmicks I put into the Goodwill box, and some of my tools I put to the side to take down to the basement for later disposition when I got down to items fourteen through twenty-three of my list of things to do.
One of the scraps of paper that I didn't throw away was about wordiness, which read like this: The Lord's Prayer has 56 words; Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has 266; the Declaration of Independence has 300. A government regulation on the sale of cabbages contains 26,911 words. I don't know who was responsible for this bit of research, but it did point out that the writers of government papers, reports, and letters are wordy -- very much so and the IRS pamphlets waiting to be read and reasoned with at this income tax time are good examples.
Yes, I have been wordy up to this point (I hate the expression "This point in time!") but I'll continue in this manner since I'm talking about wordiness, and have been reminded about my time in civil service and working for the Navy Department. Civil Service published several good books, pamphlets, and papers on report writing, stressing that it was poor practice to use long sentences, poor word choices, double entries and cliches. No one seemed to pay attention to them then and as far as I know still don't. My work in the navy yard and the torpedo station required writing memos and reports on tests and research projects, and I strived for brevity without losing completeness. One of my cohorts said he didn't like a report he had written -- it just wasn't right, but when I offered to write it for him, he said, "That won't help -- I don't like the way you write either." One of the most wordy fellows in our group was Paul from India, a mechanical engineer with a doctorate degree in horticulture. He had never in his youth associated with mechanical things more complicated than a bicycle, a single speed one at that, and couldn't design or think up a method to accomplish a mechanical operation. He was assigned to my group and we found him to be excellent at analyzing test data. My job was to edit test reports, and so I became sort of supercritical of his method of explaining things in two ways in one sentence, and then repeating it again later in the same paragraph. I would sit down with him and explain that I thought he was overstressing a point, and remarking that some of the words he used weren't necessary to get his thoughts across to the readers. He agreed with my philosophy after reading some the pamphlets I had gathered on report writing. Actually he went overboard and afterwards eliminated all kinds of words, including the article "the." It tore me up to ask him to include some things in his reports that I had criticized him about before.
I recall another fellow, Bud, who came to work under me in the shipyard. He was a fresh graduate of a well-known university and was good at finding the problems with the equipment he was testing aboard the ships and how they could be remedied. His first report, written in longhand amazed me. I asked him about his spelling and how he had managed to get through school as I handed him his report with half the words misspelled. He said that I had circled about the average number of words that he usually misspelled, but in school he had his wife type out his reports and she made all the corrections necessary. He improved his spelling after that by looking up all the circled words. I wasn't to correct his spelling -- just circle the ones that were wrong and he would look them up and make corrections. His reports weren't wordy, but I had difficulty with my spelling for a long time afterwards.
After all this discussion I must again admit that I've been quite wordy--but I have gone back through and corrected my spelling errors. When I write letters to friends and relatives, or Christmas letters, Betty says, while proofreading my missives, that I could have written the same thing with a lot less words. I don't think I'll let her read this REPORT.
I was discussing wordiness with the Olsens after one of our Wednesday Bible class breakfasts (at the Oyster House, not Denny's) and Clara Mae told of one of her teachers who assigned an essay for the students to write and then required them to write a synopsis of their essay in twenty five words--exactly twenty five words, no more, no less. The teacher told them a story about a father who wrote his son a long letter and apologized for its length with the excuse that he didn't have time to write a short one. It's true--I could have presented this "essay" in fewer words, but I didn't take time to edit it. Besides, I wanted to write on WORDINESS.
Never fear big words -- big words name little things.
All big things have little names such as God, life and death, peace and war -- or dawn, day, night, hope, love, home.
Learn to use little words in a big way -- it's hard to do but they say what you mean. If you don't know what you mean, use big words -- they often fool little people.
The Lord's Prayer has 56 words; Lincoln's Gettysburg Address 266; the Declaration of Independence, 300. A government regulation on the sale of cabbages contains 26,911.