Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Brevity is the Soul of... Difficulty

"I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short."
--Blaise Pascal

It's a principle that defies all logic: in writing, it takes a lot of time to compose something short. Take this blog post, for example. It's going to take me 20 or 30 minutes to arrange my thoughts the way I want them to be read (I've already edited these few sentences four times) - yet in the same amount of time, I could have written two pages of a novel.

Why is it so hard to come up with just a few words? How can I pound out an entire chapter's worth of prose (on a good day) in an hour or so, but I have to think about a 140-character Facebook or Twitter post for the same amount of time before I'm ready to type it in?

Apparently, I'm not the only writer who struggles with brevity. The quote above has also been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Johnson, and Mark Twain. They knew the principle. In writing, what you say does not count nearly as much as how you say it - and the fewer words you use to make your point, the more precise those words must be.

Here's an example. In the opening of one of my novels, I needed to make the point that the character was in a rural area alone at night. Now, I could have said something like this:

The building I drove into was on a single-lane road, and there were no neighbors. I hadn't passed another structure for miles. I didn't see any other cars while I was headed here, and it was already ten o'clock, so it was dark outside. And cloudy. Of course, there were a lot of trees, because I was in the country.

Does it get the point across? Sure. It took me about a minute and a half to write that paragraph, and it's almost the right voice - but it's far too clunky, and rather boring. Here's what's actually in the manuscript:

Outside, a starless night in Middle of Nowhere, New York, waited for me.

Thirteen words that say the exact same thing. And I probably spent at least two minutes on that sentence while I was writing the book.

Brevity for the sake of good writing shouldn't be applied only to Facebook posts and blog comments. Saying more with fewer words is good practice for any type of writing, even novels - especially novels. Writing lots of words is great, but the real strength of your writing will come from choosing the right words.

And that takes time.


Kim Smith said...

Great post SW. And I have to say that with each book or story I write, I learn how much easier it is to spot those problem areas where we are saying the same thing over and over (a 2 x 4 over the reader's head)redundantly- or in a way that could have been done so much easier with fewer words. Thanks for the reminder.

David Ebright said...


(Is that response too abrupt?)

Sheila Deeth said...

Wise advice, and very nicely given. Now, back to editing and drabbles...

Vergil said...

"Saying more with fewer words"is an excellent way to proceed. It will make any writing stronger. Less is more, in most cases. Hard work, though. Takes patience, focus, discipline. And a corollary to the principle:
every word that remains should be there for a reason.
Bob Sutherland (aka Vergil)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

This was one of the hardest things to learn when I was a young writer. I still challenge myself to make my writing more succinct and precise - without sacrificing a natural voice. It's a hard balance - you do it beautifully in your work, SW! Thanks for the great article!