Writing Tip 11: Write short

Blaise Pascal, apparently, wrote in a letter in 1657:

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

The expressions, often misattributed to Mark Twain, means it is harder to write in a few words what could be written in a few pages.

Today's tip:

Writing Tip 11: Write short

In my undergraduate days, we were trained to write more. Assignments had minimum word counts, and professors never seemed to enforce the maximum word counts. We were asked to read long books and articles. In the social sciences, at least, it seemed that if we learned anything by example, it was that verbosity is a virtue, not a vice.

Grad school made it worse. We read, and we wrote more. My dissertation took this to an extreme: 420 pages. Many are this long, many more are even longer. Why? To illustrate a point, I used not just the one best example, but all of my examples. I repeated myself, to make sure the reader knew my argument. I wrote a long dissertation because I didn’t have time to write a short dissertation. I didn’t realize this was a bad thing until later.

Last year, I revised three chapters, about 100 pages, down to 30 pages. The result was much better: My argument became clear and my examples tighter.

Next time I teach, one assignment I would like to borrow from John McPhee at the New Yorker, is telling my students to use a green pencil and to remove words without changing the meaning.

McPhee writes:

Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom, I tell them. The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed. Easier with some writers than with others. It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train—or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size. Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint. Measure cumulatively the fragments you remove and see how many lines would be gone if the prose were reformatted. If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.

How would students react if I asked them to shorten their 20-page papers to 10 pages and not lose any content?

How to write short?

Roy Peter Clark’s How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times is has good ideas. I disagree with the premise that we live in fast times: A telegraph message makes Twitter seem like long-form journalism. Yet, shortness is the virtue, and verbosity the vice.