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?
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.
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!