A Problem with Brevity

September 16, 2016 § 20 Comments


The Loquacious Liz Blocker

by Liz Blocker

The writing advice guides all agree on one point: it’s essential to find your own style. This is all well and good, except that in its natural, unchecked state, my style is a catastrophic landslide of prose.

In other words, I am incapable of being brief.

When I write, sentences pour out in long unraveling skeins, or in a flood of white-capped, roiling snow-melt. Why use one metaphor when you can use two, or three? My word counts rise in a predictable pattern: first I worry about keeping to my target, then I wonder how flexible that target is, and then I realize I’ve written enough for five pieces, not one.

This problem has financial implications, too. It was one of these occasions that made me first wonder if this issue of mine was more than just a cute idiosyncrasy. My wife and I were working with a lawyer to draw up our estate plans: wills, healthcare proxies, power of attorney, and all the rest of the uplifting documents that tie the loose ends of your early and tragic death into a neat little bow. The lawyer sent us a draft, and I wrote an email in response. My wife peered over my shoulder as I was writing.

“Do you really need to explain why we don’t like that sentence?” Jen asked.

“Well, I want her to cut it,” I said.

“Can’t you just tell her to cut it?”

I was horrified. “Without explaining it to her first?”

Jen sighed, and plucked the lawyer’s last invoice from a pile of papers. “She charges $300 an hour,” she said. “That explanation is going to cost us $20.”

I deleted the sentence without a further word of protest.

Soon after, a fiction editor I’d hired recommended I turn up the volume on my inner critic. Probably she was tired of reminding me that I didn’t need to use three adjectives in every sentence, just because three is such a magical, intriguing, enticing number in storytelling. So, for a while, I tried to stem the rising flood. I edited as I wrote, cutting semi-colons in great swaths, reaping the harvest of repetitive synonyms. This strategy resulted in an electronic barn full of dead words, and a few very naked, rather dull pieces.

Inner critics are for losers, I thought, and silenced my own with a sledgehammer.

The result was more mountainous heaps of superfluous words. One night, I realized it had taken me five times longer to cut a piece than it had to write it. Two hours of my “natural” style, and ten of painstaking and painful work to slice the narrow, winding, lovely sentences into bare expressways. This was not a small problem; the piece was only supposed to be 800 words. Imagine how long a 3,000 word essay might take.

Shudder-worthy, isn’t it? I knew I had to do something drastic. Wasting my precious writing time on cutting was stupid, not to mention deadly boring.

Resigned, I went back to where I’d left my inner critic, lying in a puddle of her own red ink.

“Wake up,” I whispered, nudging her shoulder with my toe.

“No,” she said, keeping her eyes resolutely closed.


She opened her eyes long enough to give me a withering glare. Typical, I thought.

“Fine,” she said, “But I’m taking the sledgehammer.”

It wasn’t an easy truce. Although I wanted to change, the desire wasn’t as strong as the need to make sure I had explained everything in excruciating detail. My inner critic shrieked that I was obsessive and anxious, and bashed words into smithereens with the sledgehammer; I retaliated by stealing the sledgehammer back. More ink spilled. Violence was threatened.

And yet we’ve made progress. This piece only took me three times as long to cut as it did to write, which, as I’ve reminded my critic, is a three-hundred percent improvement! I would say more about that, but I’m out of space.

So I’ll just say, it’s an ongoing process. And that I –

– have to stop. Never mind.


Liz Blocker‘s essays have been published in a number of magazines and journals, including The ToastBrain, Child, and The Dallas Review. She lives in Boston, MA. When she’s not wrangling her infant twins, she’s writing, reading, running, or working as a massage therapist – or some combination thereof.

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§ 20 Responses to A Problem with Brevity

  • Nigtingale says:

    Near the beginning of the movie A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, the eldest son who studies at home is instructed to write an essay which he does. He gives his father the essay, and after, he reads it he instructs his son to cut it to one paragraph, which the son does. When the son gives him the one paragraph essay, his father instructs him to get to the essence and to write one sentence. Most editing of essays constitutes eliminating the unnecessary verbiage that obscures rather than throws light on the essay’s major theme.

    That you take longer editing your essays than writing them is no surprise. Many writers, especially good ones, take just as long. You should consider your first pass at writing an essay as a rough draft, and then be merciless in the editing especially of overuse of words which often occurs when you can’t find that perfect word that covers the meaning of all the other words all by its own self. Also avoid extremely complex syntax which forces the reader to wade through the sentences like soldiers wading through mud.

    One way to easily get rid of unnecessary verbiage involves simply banning phrases like: due to the fact that (because), in the near future (presently), etc. You can find lists of such phrases in any good composition reference book. I would suggest Strunk and Whites brief volume ELEMENTS OF STYLE for any writer’s library.

    But then I doubt you have as much trouble as you profess, or the editors of your several published works saw great value in the message of your text, which I expect they did and do, and therefore felt it worth helping you edit your work for clarity and readability directed at the abilities of their particular readers. Congratulations on the brevity of your last essay. It is short and raises the important question of how much one must say, or not say, to reveal the writer’s theme and purpose for writing the essay to its readers when the author shows his or her generously by taking the time to write well.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    What happens is Rev. John Maclean tells his son to cut the essay in half, and when that’s done he says to cut it in half again. I call this “hack-and-slash” editing, and I am a fan. Most of us spend far longer editing than generating.

  • I totally agree. I spend way more time editing than actually writing but I think that’s all part of the process. It’s better to have too much and cut back than it is to have too little. Then again I don’t know many writers who suffer from writing too few words

  • Love, love, LOVE your piece and the humor! And the fact that I, a meandering, verbose, incapable of short sentences writer that I am, have professional soulmates like you. You might enjoy my BRIEF piece on Literary Mama about the pain and rewards of editing DOWN.

  • George says:

    Russell Baker once had a piece imagining Tolstoy as a modern author. When his editor tells him that he needs a tee shirt featuring his novel, he goes home and devises one covering five acres. I suspect that this was collected in So This is Depravity.

  • Chandra says:

    I totally, thoroughly, consummately understand this issue!

  • I or my muse (blame it one her) loves long sentences.I hate editing and agree it takes longe to edit than to write. I know it’s a necessary evil, but I often question – do we lose something when we change our style? Thanks for sharing. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  • Naomi Cohn says:

    Thanks! You’re singing my (too wordy( song!

  • Mimi S. Dupont says:

    When I was a working journalist, we used to rationalize that we didn’t have time to write it short. Trust your audience. Cut the words that DON’T help.

  • Wow! I’m working on a novel right now. I don’t have money for hiring an editor, so any experience you could tell is simply gold for me.

    But I do understand the feeling. I have a pretty strong inner critic and everytime it gets me I’m just like ‘Well, let’s keep on changing this until it sounds professional or I hate it’.
    Most of the times I end up hating it, so I prefer rewriting.

    I didn’t know about the three adjetive sentences. It’s good to know!

  • batya7 says:

    I’ll be brief… what you said!

  • jozumwalt says:

    I’ve had mentors who advocated NO adjectives, just strong nouns and descriptive verbs. (But this sentence has two adjectives!)

    • Jan Priddy says:

      It is admirable to seek more distinctive nouns, more precise verbs, but sometimes the alternatives become wordy. Use what is required. (You have three adjectives in that first sentence + another in the next.)

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