When is brevity too brief?

June 12, 2009 § 4 Comments

Recent book reviewer J. Luise ponders the art of brevity:

How far can one go in cutting detail in tightly integrated and very succinct pieces of writing? And when is detail crucial for understanding the context?

First example:

In the review of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, I wrote about my son-in-law who grows thyme outside his 3rd floor apartment. My sentence about the thyme read: “While roasting tomatoes, I step outside the third floor apartment to snip a few branches of thyme from a plastic pot wired to the kitchen window. Dainty green leaves, tipped in silver, sprawl over the surface of the soil, exuding a sweet aroma.”

The editor’s suggested changes read:

“While roasting tomatoes, I stepped outside to snip a few branches of thyme: dainty green leaves, tipped in silver, exuding sweet aroma.”

The location of the thyme amplifies Pollan’s recommendation to grow something by showing modest circumstances where one can begin to establish a more direct and satisfying relationship with food. While these proposed edits conform to the spirit of Brevity magazine, they challenged my instinct as a nature writer to anchor the reader in where the thyme grows and how. The sentence was restored to its original form after I explained the reason for the details.

Second example:

Again, in the review of Pollan’s book, my original ending for this book review read:

“It is easy to feel overwhelmed by our fast food way of life.Bit it is also easy to take the first steps towards reclaiming our cultural heritage—that celebrated activity of creating something good to eat. The first step can be as modest as enjoying the sweet scent of a sprig of thyme.

“‘What would happen,’ Michael Pollan asks, ‘if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?’

“Indeed, what would happen?

“We might feel nourished.”

The editor’s suggested revision for the ending:

“It is easy to feel overwhelmed by our fast food way of life. But it is also easy to take the first step towards creating something good to eat. That first step can be with a sprig of thyme.”

The ending is much stronger because of the editor’s suggestion.

My original ending with the quote from Pollan introduced a new thought where the piece needed a clean and concise conclusion.

Imagine how finely developed an editor’s skill must be to balance the needs of a nature writer who describes where thyme is grown with the demands of readers wanting short pieces of writing!


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§ 4 Responses to When is brevity too brief?

  • Caroline R. Schuler says:

    I think you were right to retain your own words in your first example as you were making a point. That would be lost in the edited version. In the second example, your ending was too wordy and the editor’s version cuts through and makes a satisfying conclusion to a very nice review.

  • Your blog entry confirmed the response I had had to your writing style in your book review of Pollan’s In defense of Food:very thoughtful and deeply felt, almost meditative writing. I hope to read more of your entries here.

  • Elizabeth Wilding-Smith says:

    When I read J. Luise’s review I accepted the words as printed without thinking of the editing process. Actually, I wanted to know more not less about that 3rd floor apartment. Was there a luxurious balcony with plants, or did the plant being wired to the window sill suggest a modest fire escape? I thought the final sentence was succinct and eloquent. So I am glad the author prevailed on the first question and the editor on second.

  • An admirer of the work of Michael Pollan, I was pleased to see this review in Brevity of In Defense of Food. I was struck by how the review brought to life the notion that a sprig of thyme grown in one’s own home garden could enliven the experience and relationship with food. I thought of my own thyme plant growing in my deck garden pot, and immediately began to dream of what I might cook for dinner for my family that would be particularly enhanced by the flavor of the fresh thyme. I thought about highlighting thyme when we next host a gathering at our home. I recalled the section in Pollan’s book that J.Luise quotes in her review about the web of relationships: “In the eye of the cook…food reveals itself for what it is: not a mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human.” This time I found that the idea and sentiment that Pollan is highlighting came to life for me in a different way—somehow more “real” in the story of J.Luise’s relationship with her son-in-law. I appreciated this deeper connection with Pollan’s book. This review has drawn my attention to revisiting the simple, delicate act of being in mindful relationship with food, and for that I am grateful.

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