mottainai

The Japanese expression mottainai has its roots in ancient Buddhist practice. The meaning has evolved over time; today, it is commonly used to mean, “what a shame to waste this!”

The spirit of mottainai manifests in many ways. Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai has adopted mottainai as a motto to encourage people to respect and take responsibility for their environment through frugality and conservation. Salvaging wood from old barns to use in new buildings is an expression of mottainai. So is the decision to buy well-built, quality tools that can be handed down through generations instead of cheap ones that will soon be discarded.

I think that the concept of mottainai can be applied to writing as well . . .

Be economical, not cheap. Don’t try to say too much with too few words; likewise, don’t overstate what is simple. The writer must choose the right words, and the right balance of words, to express each concept with clarity, concision, and accuracy. Fortunately, writers can refine their work with little waste — discarded words and sentences do not pile up on the floor like metal shavings.

Conserve energy. Bring your reader from the introduction through your main points to your conclusion as efficiently as possible. Avoid unnecessary detours. Don’t try to dazzle the reader with literary flourishes or try to impress them; draw your style from the subject instead.

Use the imperfections. When I am commissioned to write a profile piece but can’t tease anything more than monosyllables out of the interviewee, I still owe the client a product. The challenge is to build a servicable article that is scaled and proportioned to fit on that particular scaffold. It may not end up being the best piece I’ve ever written, but in the end I can take satisfaction in knowing that I used every piece as well as it could be used.

The spirit of mottainai as applied to writing suggests a respect for words and the concepts they represent so as to select and use them to their best effect. Next time, try a little mottainai.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.