Cut the Waffle

by Sue Cook

Recently I’ve been reading The Diaries of William Rowbottom. These record interesting events in Oldham between 1788 and 1830. Deaths, elopements, shootings, salacious court cases—that sort of thing.

I particularly enjoy the causes of death, some of which were surely unusual then, let alone now. Consider the mortal wound caused by ‘being stricken in the loins by a carrot weighing 1lb 6oz’. It’s straight out of Blackadder, isn’t it?

A puzzling entry I read this morning involves an odd use of ‘fustian’. I thought this was a type of material, but that made little sense.

I was right, though—it’s heavy cotton cloth. But a second meaning is overblown/pretentious writing or speech.

Many examples abound in the arena of literary ingenuity we call creative writing of the ambitious yet perhaps misguided ‘master’ of the pen who is nothing of the sor…

Stop! I’ve gone all fustian. I mean, we’ve all seen it—inexperienced writers who confuse long words and complex clauses with fine writing. Fustian, in this sense, means ‘padded’.

Why is this relevant to the current blog theme of progress against writing aims? I’ll tell you.

Last December, I set out my six SMART objectives for 2021. My progress is on target, so that’s boring. Alongside these, though, I am working on reducing wordiness because several of my ‘tight’ short stories were judged to waffle by fellow WOMAG writers.

Waffle? Moi?

Frankly, yes.

Consequently, cutting extraneous words has become so habituated, I’ve started self-editing when I talk.

This week, for example, we forgot to put out the recycling. The bin-lorry came past. “It’s ok,” I said. “The blue bin is barely half-full because we haven’t been ordering anything like as many parcels as we have been.”

Whoa there! What’s wrong with, “It’s ok. The blue bin’s half empty.”?

This is extreme, but many everyday phrases can, and probably should, be cut.

  • A bouquet of flowers
  • In the fullness of time  – eventually
  • In the event that – if
  • skin rash
  • heart palpitations
  • Sit down, stand up.

William Rowbottom’s Georgian diary is very concise. Most of his entries are only 20 or 30 words long. He confines himself to facts, and his writing is riveting.

Had he waxed lyrical on how exactly the veg victim had  been stricken, how he lingered, or who grew the massive carrot, I would have read the entry and moved on. As it stands, my imagination has run wild. How did the carrot connect with his loins? Was it sharpened? Who thought to weigh it afterwards?

Now I stop to think about it, I’m not exactly clear where the loins are, either.

Less, as they say, is definitely more.

PS, weather notes for May 1792: ‘uncommonly wet and cold’. I wish I could offer you hope for the ensuing summer, but he only mentions a terrible thunder storm in July with a cow struck by lightning in Gimbies. 

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