Subtraction is all the math a writer needs
June 15, 2013
I ran across a blog Friday by Graham at The Recording Revolution called Mixing Minimalism and the Art of Subtraction, which I believe has a direct application to writing.
Graham uses a quote from the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery as the center piece of the blog. “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
In the context of audio mixing, Graham explains that mixers should consider not what they can add to a mix, but rather what they can subtract. He compares the task of mixing to that of a sculptor who begins with a beautiful slab of marble and chips away at it until he reveals the masterpiece hidden within it.
In the world of audio that approach may result in some instruments not appearing in every measure of a song, or perhaps not at all.
The application of the principle of subtraction to writing is direct, and potentially painful for an author who has spent hundreds or thousands of hours putting words on digital paper. What if a favorite chapter doesn’t make the cut?
One of the things that interests me about subtraction and writing is the issue of how big the slab of marble should be at the beginning of the process. I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far, but subtraction only works if there is mass of words from which to subtract.
But I don’t believe it is a matter of amassing a huge collection of unnecessary words, then chipping away at the clump.
Subtraction as I take the sense of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s saying is a process that starts when all the cutting an author can do on his own is already done. If the writer has cut her 100,000 word manuscript, wailing and gnashing her teeth all the way along, to 75,000 words, she is then ready to apply the principle of subtraction.
In other words, it is possible to make any work tighter.
This doesn’t mean that the subtracted version will consist of sentences like “the cat ate the rat.”
Not at all.
A long sentence can survive subtraction, maybe even retain its original form, if it contains no unnecessary words.
What if a writer leans toward spare, bare bones prose?
Subtraction applies equally to him. Short sentences often need to be shorter, other times they need to disappear.
No one is exempt from the principle of subtraction.
But perhaps when the chisel quiets, a masterpiece may remain.