Omission Is A Good Thing


Lately, I’ve been reading books on the craft of writing, and how to grow and improve as a writer. These books have given me a better understanding of how important good writing is in order to convey a message, or elicit a reaction, or simply entertain the reader. Every book on the subject of writing has its own set of guiding principles, if you will. But the best principle I read was in Stephen King’s only non-fiction book, On Writing. In it, he mentions William Strunk and E. B. White’s Elements of Style and he says that the best piece of advice he found in this book was “Omit Needless Words”. Three simple but very powerful words.

Omitting something is simply the act of leaving something out or failing to include it. Not pruning it out after the fact, but simply not putting it there in the first place. That, my friends, is much easier said than done. As a writer and an avid reader, I often find myself adding words that might emphasize a point, but are not crucial. They’re “needless”. Sometimes I catch these words and yank them out during the editing process, but other times they remain fully entrenched, like dandelions that refuse to be pulled out.

This is very similar to what we do in life. We learn from a very young age that we must add things, that adding is always a good thing. From adding clothes, to adding toys, to adding coloring books… we grow up adding. We see our parents and other adults adding their items and so we see it as something to emulate, because we all want to be like our parents and other adults when we’re children. And we go through life just adding and adding and adding. We never stop to question this mindset. Why are we always adding? Let’s consider three possible reasons:

1. We imitate what we see.

We grow up seeing things being added all the time. In fact, it’s the only thing we see. We never see our parents purging or otherwise subtracting from the household possessions. Why? Probably because we’re too busy playing with our toys, and we might be too young to notice things like that.

2. We get comfortable.

We learn to always add things and we find reasons to hold on to them. They provide comfort and they might even make us feel safe.

3. We let our things define us.

At some point in our life, we start to believe that we *are* what we own. We allow our possessions to define us. If we have lots of books, it means we’re smart. If we have lots of CDs and DVDs, it means we’re worldly. If we have lots of clothes and accessories, it means we’re hip.

Breaking Free

Some of us had an awakening and realized these things are needless. While our perception was being shifted, we started seeing them for what they really are: remnants of a previous time, of moments gone, of the PAST. We learned we do not NEED these things in order to give our life meaning. We learned to stop letting these things define us. We were freed from the defeatist attitude that says I must hold on to every single item that comes into my life because it once made me happy, if only for a few minutes, and was then shoved in a box and tossed in the back of some closet, attic, or basement. How refreshing it is to finally learn we can be free from all these needless things.

Thoreau once advised his readers to “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”. I would change that to “Omit, omit, omit!”. We could be so much happier if we could just learn to curtail the urge to add.

As an ending note, I think it’s very interesting that Stephen King also wrote a novel about peoples’ attachment to physical items and how these can become a curse (Needful Things). I wonder where he got his idea from? Maybe Mr. King is a minimalist? Ahhh, a fan can always dream.

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15 thoughts on “Omission Is A Good Thing

  1. Nice Rick. I’m a Stephen King fan too – didn’t know he’d written a book on non-fiction writing – so thanks for the tip!

    Omit, omit, omit – yep, that says to me that if you don’t ‘acquire’ in the first place that you won’t then have to go through this periodic decluttering (applies to writing and life – like that you pulled the two together in this post).

    For some reason we all get programmed at a very young age to believe that more is good and that less is bad – and then as we head into our early twenties this morphs into ‘more = success’. How liberating it is, albeit a little further down the line, to discover the beauty and freedom of simplicity.

    I’ve just spent the weekend moving my furniture around, and getting rid (well putting in the eBay pile)of all those items that I’d kept, thinking that I’d use them over the Winter – which in fact I didn’t – a liberating (and hopefully financially rewarding) exercise!

    Steve

    1. Hey Matt,

      Yes, On Writing is a must-read, and it’s a personal journey about how he started writing and everything he’s gone through as a writer and as a human being as well. It’s very heartfelt and real.

      Yes, it’s a hopeful sign to see more and more people realize that more is not the answer, and that less can actually be synonymous with freedom.

      Good luck with your eBay sale, and here’s hoping it’s a very rewarding experience, financially and otherwise!

      Rick

    2. I am on a my second year of a Creative Writing course as well as reading books. My tutor is great at pointing out where I can remove words. Sometimes I disagree though as its meant to convey something more along the line of the ramble. I am also taking an Grammar in Context course and see that different styles have different effects. In a way the Grammar (Grammar not punctuation) course has been more useful than the Creative Writing. I think it will take me a lifetime and beyond to learn all there is to know about writing though. I am still far from being an expert

  2. I don’t read many books, but Stephen King is an interesting man. He might very well be something like a minimalist.

    I like that you point out the difference between omitting and pruning. Lots of us write about pruning, but developing a lifestyle that omits silliness in the first place is the next step.

    Great post.
    Gip

    1. Thank you, Gip!

      I find that it gets a little easier to omit as time rolls along, although I am still in the middle of the pruning process myself, but even so, things try to come in and add themselves and I have to be constantly monitoring and questioning why things are in my possession. If it can’t answer the question “Why are you here?”, out it goes. Society doesn’t help either, when it labels you as a freak for not wanting to have more, more, more. When I decided to get rid of my car, I had family members tell me to my face that I was crazy. Now I’m free, and guess who are the crazy ones? HA!

      Take care and thanks for stopping by!

      Rick

  3. “We could be so much happier if we could just learn to curtail the urge to add.”

    What a fantastic line Rick.

    I didn’t realize Stephen King had a non-fiction book available about writing either. How interesting.

    My favorite book on writing is “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. The entire premise of the book is the same as the guiding principles of your post. Use the fewest words possible to get your point across. And if you can say it more simply, do it!

    1. Thanks, Jenny. Your words are, as always, like a breath of fresh air.

      Yes, I bought the ebook version of On Writing about 2 years ago, and just now got around to reading it. How sad, right? It was a fascinating read, but I’m probably biased because I’m a horror novel junkie and Stephen King has always been my favorite writer. But yes, it’s non-fiction, and he takes us from day one of his writing career to the time the book was finished. It’s a must-read for any writer or SK fan.

      I will have to check out “On Writing Well”. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Rick

    1. I just got The Elements of Style for my iPad (free!) and I’m eager to start reading it so I can (digitally) highlight it and make notations. That’s going to be my new bible! Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Sounds good. ‘Omit needless words’. What I don’t understand is the word ‘needless’ there.

    What is a ‘needless’ word for you?.

    Maybe that piece of advice worked fine for Mr. King, he wanted to sell million books… maybe ‘needless’ for him is a word that make his books difficult to read.. for the mass.

    I close my eyes and I imagine of you. I don’t think of you as the typical blogger…wishing to have millions subscribers…

    Through the net there are many needless blogs, full of needless posts, and needless words, no matter if they are about minimalism or not… their origins were nice, but they became transformed by the crowd … subscribers transform bloggers…

    I like your blog.

    I like it because of your writing style.

    I don’t want you to omit any single word. Why remove them?, you wrote them!!!.

    … you don’t promise a post/week/month/year, you don’t promise e-books,… you write and share… Don’t lose that magic.

    This is an oasis of fresh water.

    Cultured words or expressions.. make us rich… language shouldn’t never be a part of our decluttering mission. From my humble point of view.

    Have a nice day, Rick. Que tengas un buen día!.

    P.D. I missed a photo 😉
    P.D. Again you reminded me a nice book to read: ‘The power of simplicity’ by Jack Trout, I guess you could like it.
    http://books.google.es/books?id=7OSWmvzxtYEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22the+power+of+simplicity%22&hl=es&ei=s662TcfZENvR4wb-4-jtDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

    1. Hi Victoria!

      Sometimes when we write, we (and I’ve been guilty of this many times) can get our point across without using so many words, and yet we keep adding words that instead of clarifying the idea, just add clutter and makes it harder to understand. Writing is the most important part, but the editing process provides focus. You have to “trim the fat”, so to speak. But it’s a good thing because only the BEST remains. 🙂

      Thank you so much for your kind words of motivation about my blog and my writing. I hope to continue writing from the heart, sharing my life stories, and helping my readers in their journey. I hope you keep coming around. Saludos!

      Rick

  5. Hi Rick,

    On Writing is incredible. I’m a King fan too, and a self-fashioned writer. I’ve read that book many times… but I struggle to Strunk myself. It’s all a work in progress.

    But you, Rick, you have mastered something. I came for a visit after not having been here for a while. I started with In Praise of Empty Spaces. It was such a beautiful and thought-provoking post I couldn’t leave a comment. The words simply wouldn’t come.

    That post is the best piece I’ve read on minimalism in months. Bravo. Bravo.

    1. Tanja,

      Wow, your words are so powerful and kind! I’m the one at a loss for words now. I’m so happy you enjoyed my post. I hope to be able to keep providing the sort of thought-provoking writing that can help us all reach that higher level of understanding, what it means to become fully human and yet fully aware of our divine nature. You have truly touched my soul with your kind, kind words. Thank you so much!

      Rick

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