One rule will tell you what to put in ... and what to leave out.
|"Verse must carry the smallest possible cargo of words which exist solely for the sake of other words."
—C. S. Lewis
Gloss: We are often advised, as writers, to prefer the vivid, the concrete, and the particular in our prose. With this advice comes a papery snowfall of rules. Don't encumber your nouns with adjectives. Choose vivid verbs. Leave out the adverbs. Say what you mean rather than an approximation.
Lewis's observation captures all that. Nouns and verbs exist for the sake of the thing and what it's doing. Adverbs, adjectives, subordinate clauses, serpentine phrases that wind about the subject: these exist for the sake of other words. Minimize them not only in poetry but in prose as well.
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Here is the full passage by Lewis, from his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, pp. 325-326, where he compares three lines by Thomas Sackville to three lines by Sir Philip Sidney and explains why Sidney's are superior to Sackville's. He draws a general moral, which I've highlighted above. (All archaic spellings in the original.)
O Sorrow, alas, sith Sorrow is thy name,
And that to thee this drere doth well pertaine,
In vayne it were to seeke to cease the same ...
And here three of Sidney's:
You Gote-heard Gods that love the grassie mountaines,
You Nimphes that haunt the springs in pleasant vallies,
You Satyrs joyde with free and quiet forrests ...
Everyone feels the clogged, laborious movement of the first, the sense of liberation and ease in the second. ... In the Sackville the words which make any appeal to the emotions or imagination are almost lost in dull connectives. Thus in the second line the noun drere is the only live word. In Sidney, every single word, except the inevitable that's and the's and with, does something for us; there are gods, nymphs, and satyrs who love and haunt and enjoy, grass on the mountains, water and pleasure in the valleys, and, best of all, liberty and silence in the woods. There are no non-conductors. Sidney knows ... that verse must carry the smallest possible cargo of words which exist solely for the sake of other words.
As with verse, say I, so with prose.