Finding Economy in Words

Keep it short.  Get to the point.  Avoid long words.  It probably seems like some kind of intelligent torture for most writers.  Words give vitality and essential meaning to our work.  Everyone uses them in different styles and ways.  Yet, we hear it often.  The importance of brevity.  No-one is safe, least of all authors – a terse style is something to be celebrated.

But it can be a cardinal criticism for anyone who thrives on the lines they write.  It is perhaps seen as an agitation of the creative spirit – a writer should only be limited by what can be fitted on a sheet of paper. As one great author said, “… from the book your soul is writing about you.”  Does it mean that to abridge one’s writing is to cleave the soul?

Perhaps not.  Terse prose is meant to teach us what words are really worth.  As another celebrated writer said on weighty books, “… very few long ones earn their length.”  Size is not necessarily directly proportionate to quality.  Maybe a short book is a concise and potent statement of the soul.

But for some, using many words is more than just indulgence.  It is both a question of style and literary flair.  Look carefully and you will see even Jane Austen had a penchant for long sentences – they can be so much more than simple shopping lists of literary prose.  Brevity can be an affront to written style.  To say that everything must be couched in information-rich and logical lines is to betray one of the few truths of fiction; namely, the folly, fancies and failures of human language and the written word.  A vacuous and woolly sentence belongs on the page as much as the next carefully-pruned line.  Terseness is not omnipotent but is just one of many devices that belongs in an author’s toolkit.

But as a tool, brevity is both fundamental and versatile.  In times of need and urgency, it can be a potent ally – just look at how it found its place in Winston Churchill’s Cabinet meetings.

So what is it really about?  Well, one dictionary refers to brevity as the “shortness or conciseness of expression”.  But what does it really mean to be brief, pithy, concise, terse and so forth? – It sounds like a verbose explanation is about to follow…  though let’s keep it short and sweet.  How do we evidence brevity?  Well, it seems we need to demonstrate two things with the words we choose:

  • RelevanceAre they really germane to what is being said?
  • CoherenceAre they being presented in the most effective manner?

Relevance and coherence are fluid ingredients that sit at the cornerstone of brevity, which help us to write better English.  Yet despite its seemingly rigid strictures and like the English language, brevity is probably a more malleable concept than it is given credit for.  It is all about writing style and persona.  We all know what it means to “keep it simple” or “cut to chase” and most of us are not great at it.  Brevity is a literary style that never goes out of fashion but also never seems in vogue either.

Maybe another way to look at brevity is as a form of self-control.  A form of written temperance for authors.  But everything should be taken in moderation including moderation itself or so it is said.

Yet now I am not being very brief.  What I am writing is losing relevance and coherence.  I will take my own advice and keep it snappy.  Give it a go.  Give your readers a break.  Get rid of some meaningless words and create a more meaningful book.

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