Just in case people aren’t sick of my extracts from SZ. I liked this. It very much describes my own approach – right down to one of the main temperamental drivers – however much I fall short of the aspiration, however verbose some of my efforts are.
I could not help wondering what exactly it was that made my books so unexpectedly popular. In the last resort, I think it arose from a personal flaw in me—I am an impatient, temperamental reader. Anything long-winded, high-flown or gushing irritates me, so does everything that is vague and indistinct, in fact anything that unnecessarily holds the reader up, whether in a novel, a biography or an intellectual argument. A book really satisfies me only if it maintains its pace page after page, carrying readers breathlessly along to the end. Nine-tenths of the books that come my way seem to be padded out with unnecessary descriptions, too much loquacious dialogue and superfluous minor characters; they are just not dynamic and exciting enough. I get impatient with many arid, slow-moving passages even in the most famous classic masterpieces, and I have often suggested a bold idea of mine to publishers—why not bring out a series of the great works of international literature, from Homer through Balzac and Dostoevsky to Mann’s The Magic Mountain, with the unnecessary parts cut? Then all those undoubtedly immortal works would gain a new lease of life in our own time.
This dislike of mine for anything tediously long-winded must have transferred itself from my reading of other authors’ works to the writing of my own, making me train myself to be especially alert for such passages. I naturally write easily and fluently, and in the first draft of a book I let my pen run on as it pleases, setting down anything that comes into my head. Similarly, when I am writing a biography I study all the factual material available. For my biography of Marie-Antoinette, for instance, I looked at all the details of her financial accounts to find out what her personal expenses were, I studied all the contemporary newspapers and pamphlets, I ploughed my way through the case files of her trial to the very last line. But none of that will be found in the final printed version, because I have hardly finished writing the first rough draft of a book before I begin on what to me is the real work, condensing my material and finding the right way to put it. I go on working tirelessly like this from draft to draft. I am constantly throwing ballast overboard, intensifying and clarifying a book’s inner architecture. Most writers cannot bring themselves to leave anything out, and having fallen rather in love with their subject hope to display a greater breadth and depth of knowledge than they really possess in every well-turned line, whereas my own ambition is always to know more than shows on the outside.
Later, at the proof stages, I then repeat this process of intensifying and thus enhancing the dramatic effect once, twice or three times. In the end I find myself enjoying a kind of hunt for another sentence, or just a word, which can be cut without affecting my precise meaning and at the same time might speed up the tempo. I really get my greatest satisfaction in my work from leaving things out. I remember that once, when I rose from my desk feeling pleased with what I had done, my wife said I seemed to be in a cheerful mood today. “Yes,” I replied proudly, “I’ve managed to cut a whole paragraph and make the action move faster.” So if my books are
sometimes praised for sweeping readers along at a swift pace, it does not come from any natural heated or agitated approach to the work of writing, but is entirely the result of my system of always cutting unnecessarily slack passages—anything at all that, like radio interference, might distract the reader’s attention. If I have mastered any kind of art, it is the art of leaving things out. I do not mind throwing eight hundred of a thousand written pages into the waste-paper basket, leaving me with only two hundred to convey what I have sifted out as the essence of the work. So if anything at least partly accounts for the success of my books, it is my strict discipline in preferring to confine myself to short works of literature, concentrating on the heart of the matter.