Beware short forms

by James Somers, March 15, 2010

Writers are constantly urged to be brief. There is, for example, the famous dictum by Strunk & White to “omit needless words,” or Orwell’s diatribe in “Politics and the English Language” against vague wordy prose:

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier—even quicker, once you have the habit—to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.

Maybe Polonius said it best in Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

The point is well-taken. The best writing feels concentrated, with tight simple language, everything superfluous removed, expressing a great deal. So it goes in every art and science: we are most satisfied by work that is simultaneously deep, important, and simple. That’s the heart of “elegance.”

It all goes back, probably, to Occam’s razor, which is the idea that we should prefer the simpler of two Xes, as long as the Xes do the same work. In science, that means preferring the simpler of two explanations that fit the same facts; in aesthetics, the more basic of two depictions; in math, the shorter and more elementary of two proofs. The point in each case is to eliminate anything extraneous.

The fact that this kind of distillation is often incredibly difficult—I’m reminded of Mark Twain telling a friend, “Sorry for the long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one”—probably goes a long way to explaining our admiration for it. It is hard work, this brevity business, and as a culture we are suckers for toil (at least in theory). Maybe that’s why we’re such big fans of diamonds—for what could better symbolize the painstaking work of an artist than the Earth’s mantle giving birth, over the course of a billion years, to a tiny, rare, and beautiful gemstone, crystal-packed with the force of a volcanic eruption?

But let’s not get carried away. Let’s not start to admire brevity for its own sake, or presume that five hundred words are intrinsically better than five thousand. Because most simple things are just simple—a one-line proof, for example, is far more likely to be proving an obvious fact in a straightforward way than it is to be proving something deep and sophisticated in a clever compact way. And (contra Twain) it actually turns out to be incredibly easy to write a short letter: all you have to do is have not that much to say.

This is why I’m wary of short forms like op-eds and blog posts. The tight space functions, paradoxically, as a kind of buffer for the writer, allowing him to keep his distance from the reader: by virtue of a word limit he is saved from having to flesh out his ideas and saved, in the case that he doesn’t have many ideas, from having to expose his ignorance. It’s a win-win situation—a win for the reader because he gets quick pithy tidbits that are easy to digest, and for the writer because it’s like being asked to hit a single note rather than carry a whole tune.

The trick to being successful with short forms, then, is to have lots of little gists of ideas, to clothe them in elegant prose, without obvious mistakes, leaving as much as you can to the reader’s imagination. All the subtle and challenging stuff can be hashed out somewhere where people will never find it, like in the comments section or letters to the editor.

Which is not to say that there aren’t writers who do make diamonds of their column inches, but merely that for most of the rest of us, compactness is a crutch.