Sunday, October 16, 2016

Give Hooptedoodle the Heave-Ho

There’s a great power in words,
if you don’t hitch too many of them together.
— Josh Billings

"Delete" is the key to sharper storytelling—and maybe the cure for Content Shock.

Or, as novelist Elmore Leonard put it, "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

The web's awash with crap content, writing that confuses and bores and bogs down readers with too much "too much."

Prolix writing exhausts us; and writers who produce it, Leonard says, are "perpetrating hooptedoodle," a word coined by another novelist, John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday (a sequel to Cannery Row) included a prologue that featured two characters speaking, Mack and Whitey No. 1.

One night Mack lay back on his bed in the Palace Flop house and he said, “I ain’t never been satisfied with that book Cannery Row. I would of went about it different.”

And after a while he rolled over and raised his head on his hand and he said, “I guess I’m just a critic. But if I ever come across the guy that wrote that book I could tell him a few things.”

“Like what?” said Whitey No. 1.

“Well,” said Mack, “like this here. Suppose there’s chapter one, chapter two, chapter three. That’s all right, as far as it goes, but I’d like to have a couple of words at the top so it tells me what the chapter’s going to be about. Sometimes maybe I want to go back, and chapter five don’t mean nothing to me. If there was just a couple of words I’d know that was the chapter I wanted to go back to.”

“Go on,” said Whitey No. 1.

“Well, I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. And another thing—I kind of like to figure out what the guy’s thinking by what he says. I like some description too,” he went on. “I like to know what color a thing is, how it smells and maybe how it looks, and maybe how a guy feels about it—but not too much of that.”

“You sure are a critic,” said Whitey No. 2. “Mack, I never give you credit before. Is that all?”

“No,” said Mack. “Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy’s writing it, give him a chance to do a little hooptedoodle. Spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up in the story. So if the guy that’s writing it wants hooptedoodle, he ought to put it right at first. Then I can skip it if I want to, or maybe go back to it after I know how the story come out.”

Indeed, Sweet Thursday readers could encounter two fancy chapters inside, "Hooptedoodle 1" and "Hooptedoodle 2." They could skip them, if they wished.

Storytelling won't advance your goals if you don't recognize the power of well-chosen words. Don't burden readers with hooptedoodle; leave long-form flights of fancy to the poets.

There's power in your "Delete" key.

Use it.

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