Keep It Short
The following article—edited for space and written by Danny Heitman, a columnist for Louisiana’s The Advocate—offers excellent advice on writing clearly and concisely.
In my first daily newspaper job some 25 years ago, I learned a few lessons about brevity that I’m still using today. Back then I contributed to a weekly feature called “Books in Brief.” Each review could be no longer than 200 words—less than a fourth the length of a usual article.
As a recent college graduate accustomed to discussing books in 12-page term papers, I chafed at writing in miniature. But I tried to think deliberately about my reviews as a form of quick conversation. If I were briefly summarizing my opinion over the phone, for example, how would I shape my argument to nab my listener by the collar before he hung up? What I was reminding myself, I suppose, is that writing is a kind of talk, a discourse that must eventually answer to the clock. In writing, brevity works not only as a function of space on a page, but the time that an audience is willing to spend with you. Even if the Internet has made infinite texts possible, the reader’s attention is not without end.
Every Word Must Count, or Cut It
To shorten my articles, I often worked through several versions, and with a merciless finger on the delete button I could surgically reduce my first draft by half. The exercise taught me that successful economy of expression often depends on vigorous revision. Refining a draft is a process of elimination that, like any contest advancing the survival of the fittest, tends to dramatize what’s left standing when the competition is complete. Like passengers in a lifeboat, all the words in a concise text must pull their own weight.
Brevity, whatever its virtues, must be balanced against a multitude of other needs in composition. The Elements of Style shows us how to strike the right balance: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
I tend to have longer word limits for my work today than those bite-size book reviews I wrote many years ago, but the basic imperative of brevity remains. Which is why, I suppose, the essay you’re reading now has been cut by about a third of its original length.
- Almonds are members of the peach family.
- Maine is the only state with a one-syllable name.
- All of the clocks in the movie Pulp Fiction are stuck on 4:20.
- Winston Churchill was born in a ladies’ room during a dance.
- On a Canadian two-dollar bill, an American flag flies over the Parliament Building.
- According to the U.S. Census Bureau, how many U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry: 10 million, 19 million, 37 million, 51 million?
Word of the Month
verbiage | \VER-bē-ij\ | noun
1: writing or speech that uses too many words or excessively technical language; 2: wordiness
“The senator asked Keith to delete the verbiage from his transportation bill and make it clear and concise.”
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SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Choose the words that best fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
“Because King Philip’s desire to make Spain the dominant power in sixteenth-century Europe ran counter to Queen Elizabeth’s insistence on autonomy for England, _____ was _____.”
- reconciliation : assured
- warfare : avoidable
- ruination : impossible
- conflict : inevitable
- diplomacy : simple
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
Buck, the slang term for a dollar, is a short version of buckskin. Buckskins were used as units of commerce on the American frontier. Here is one use of the word in an unedited excerpt from the book Narrative of William Biggs, While He Was a Prisoner With the Kickepoo Indians published in 1826: “McCauslin then sent for the interpreter, and the indians asked 100 Buckskins for me, in merchandize…the indians then went to the traders houses to receive the pay, they took but seventy bucks worth of merchandize at that time.”
Dr. Kevin Ryan's business-writing book is available on Amazon.com and qualifies for free shipping.
Answer: conflict : inevitable
Fun Facts Answer
According to the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 37 million U.S. residents claim Irish ancestry, which is approximately 12 per cent of the U.S. population and more than eight times the population of Ireland of 4.5 million.
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