I overwrite at times. I don’t mean long phrase-upon-phrase, clause-upon-clause, description-upon-description sentences as, say, Virginia Woolf does. If I were capable of writing sentences like this from Mrs. Dalloway—
The British middle classes sitting sideways on the tops of omnibuses with parcels and umbrellas, yes, even furs on a day like this, were, she thought, more ridiculous, more unlike anything there has ever been than one could conceive; and the Queen herself held up; the Queen herself unable to pass.
—then I would be happy to write like Woolf.
Unfortunately, my writing instead can be larded with unnecessary phrases, clauses, and descriptions. Even as I was completing the third round of revisions for my novel, As the Crow Flies, I still found things—even single words—to cut, or clunky sentences that needed rephrasing so they were sharp and clear.
Since I am aware of this literary weakness on my part, I tend to pounce when I find the same failing in a student’s or client’s writing. So I change, “She felt as if she couldn’t breathe,” to “She couldn’t breathe.” When I point out the change to the writer, she says, “Of course.” It can be easier to see problems in other people’s writing than in our own; and when excess verbiage is pointed out to us, we do say, “Of course.”
Yet as I am no Virginia Woolf, able to create long flowing sentences without wasted words or unwieldy structure, neither am I Raymond Chandler. I am unable—at least at this point in my writing career—to comfortably bang out three simple sentences in a row, as Chandler does in The Long Goodbye. “He offered me a drink. I said no thanks. I didn’t sit down.” But then Chandler could handle a complex sentence as well as Woolf, for the next paragraph contains this:
Also, he hadn’t mentioned that he had no job and no prospects and that almost his last dollar had gone into paying the check at The Dancers for a bit of high class fluff that couldn’t stick around long enough to make sure he didn’t get tossed in the sneezer by some prowl car boys, or rolled by a tough hackie and dumped out in a vacant lot.
Of course the length of the sentences, the simplicity or complexity of them, is not the point. The necessity of each word is the point. So I continue my search and destroy missions when proofing my own work or editing a student’s or a client’s.
I will allow Strunk and White, in Elements of Style, have the last word:
17. Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.