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.
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.