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On concise writing

black typewriter on a desk

More than a few fine writers have lamented not having more time to write less. Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”

The principle applies if you’re a published author, proposal writer, communications professional or someone who only ever writes email messages. The more concise your message, the better.

This concept brushes up against what most of us have learned to do – write long! You know how to stretch a few salient points into a 750-word essay for a school assignment. You know how to add additional arguments to prove a point. You know that handing in something scant to your boss can appear like you’re not trying enough or, worse, don’t know enough.

We know without doubt that writing improves when we review and review and then review again, trimming the excess. Ideas, now lean, stand confidently on their own. Phrasing flows. Humanity seems to rise to the surface. One sentence tells a story.

So why is it so hard to write short? A lack of time? That’s a big part of it, to my mind. Writing can be one more task in a long list, so when the last line of a piece is written, we move on, knowing it’s good enough. Or we want to impress and share it quickly, so leave out that second, third – or even first! – careful edit.

Another common notion is that our egos get in the way of writing short; that we’re unwilling to ‘kill our darlings’, those phrases so beautifully, so originally, crafted. Ah, the ego. A short word that packs a punch.

It takes a certain strength of character to write anything down, to move it from your mind into public viewing. It’s an act of assertion that opens us to criticism. Enter the ego.

So you would think we’d want to spend as much time as possible on it, e.g., write short. I have two personal theories on that.

  1. The ‘start the car’ theory.
    This suggests that the craft of writing is not ours to own. It’s precarious and has graced us in a kind of cosmic accident, for the moment. It can go at any time. When words flow and the work is decent and we surprise ourselves with a shining phrase, it’s a blessing that’s not to be questioned or toyed with. Get it down and leave it alone. There’s every chance we’ll screw it up! Hence, long writing.
  2. The ‘worry to weakness’ theory.
    This suggests that the prime driver of our writing is the way words land on the minds, hearts and egos of others. So careful are we to avoid offence, to examine both sides, consider all angles and present every perception, we wring the life out of any original thought. This reader-pleasing approach wrenches us out of the creative process that animates our writing and into a state of self-consciousness that summons cautious, bloated narrative. Hence, long writing.

To keep these theories out of practice and inspire me to write shorter, here’s what I try to do:

Trust myself.
When a turn of phrase stirs something in me, I am intentional about embracing it. And I expect more of the same. I remind myself that my respect for the reader will shine through even bold, independent ideas.

Try harder.
Even when I think I’ve produced something good, I reject my instinctive impatience to call it complete, and spend time and attention to make it better.

Be grateful.
I take neither the credit nor the blame. I am grateful for whatever experience or entity has inspired me to write what I write. And I find joy in it.

With thanks for reading,