Why We’re Not Writing Succinctly—and What to Do About It

October 23, 2018 § 9 Comments


By Mathina Calliope

Writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent elimination.
-Louise Brooks

I know I should write concisely. Plowing through bloated prose, I’ve certainly wished other authors had. I’ve silently struck needless words and cursed the writer for lacking the courtesy to clean up after him- or herself.

I also struggle to get my own word counts down. As with many things in life, it’s easier to spot a speck than pull out a plank.

At some point in our writing trajectories, a well-meaning person read our draft and said it needed “more details.” Yes, a well-chosen detail brings a scene alive and puts readers into the action. Unfortunately, many of us, perhaps too young to grasp what details were, simplified this advice to more words.

Later, we come across Strunk & White’s “Omit needless words” and Mark Twain’s “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” and we may try to unlearn wordiness.

This is difficult.

But why? Shouldn’t it be easier to write fewer words than more? Let’s take a look at some threats to succinctness and try to understand their source—and how to eliminate them.

First drafts are where we figure it out.
If I had a nickel for every time I wrote a sentence and immediately wrote another one containing the exact same idea, I’d have many nickels. Writing is not stenography—it’s not transferring neat, insightful, and lovely ideas from our brains to the page. Writing is the messy process of wrestling with those ideas, taming them into insights. For me, that’s trying out an idea in one sentence, then explaining it in the next. The idea forms as I write, so the second sentence feels like additional information. It’s not until I reread that I can see the redundancy. Sometimes I can strike the first sentence altogether. Sometimes it’s the second sentence that goes. And sometimes half the idea is in one and half in the other, so I combine and tighten.

Succinct writing takes time.
Blaine Pascal, John Locke, and Henry David Thoreau are all credited with versions of “I’m sorry this is so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

First drafts are where we work things out. That takes X length of time. First drafts plus re-reading and revising to eliminate redundancy takes X plus Y length of time.

We might not have that time; worse, we might not realize how much it matters. Smart readers, who don’t need to be told anything twice, can spot redundancy from a page away. They won’t tolerate much. As writers, we have to put our work aside for a bit, make it unfamiliar, then reread and ruthlessly delete anything superfluous.

We don’t realize we’re being wordy.
We may write our first drafts conversationally. The advantage of this is accessibility and a natural tone. The disadvantage is that speech is seldom succinct. Word padding that may not inconvenience listeners still weighs down prose.

We think long sentences sound good.
But they usually don’t. Long sentences work only when the complexity of their ideas warrants them. Best case, an unnecessarily long sentence confuses and tires readers. Worst case, it conveys uncertainty or even ignorance; readers see right through the writer’s attempt to appear to know a lot.
It’s not easy being brief. But it’s important—for the clarity of your ideas and for the love of your reader.

So the next time you are ready to submit a piece of writing to a reader, an editor, or a friend, remember these words of Dr. Seuss: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

_____________________________

Mathina Calliope is a writer, editor, teacher, and writing coach. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post’s Magazine and Outlook sections, NPR’s Morning Edition, Prevention, the Manifest-Station, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere. Currently she is finishing a memoir, Deprivation Vacation, about hiking the Appalachian Trail at 43 as a way to step cold turkey out of her comfort zone. @mathinacalliope IG: mathinacalliope

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§ 9 Responses to Why We’re Not Writing Succinctly—and What to Do About It

  • jsornber says:

    I agree with you on several points. But I do notice some redundancy even in this piece. Also, you make short shrift of long sentences, unfairly, I think. So many fabulous writers use the long sentence to excellent effect. Think Virginia Woolf and Henry James.

  • Lora Fish says:

    So true! I don’t think I even say anything in the first 500 words. Too bad so I didn’t read this before my last blog post!

  • Sharon Silver says:

    Totally agree with your advice to “put [your] work aside for a bit, make it unfamiliar, then reread and ruthlessly delete anything superfluous.” It’s hard to kill your darlings because, well, they’re your darlings. I find that a bit of estrangement makes it easier to come back and cut.

  • kperrymn says:

    So much wisdom here. Reading this is a great way to start off my writing day. Thank you!

  • pbsomers says:

    “Best case, an unnecessarily long sentence confuses and tires readers. Worst case, it conveys uncertainty or even ignorance; readers see right through the writer’s attempt to appear to know a lot.” This is helpful and true.

  • bone&silver says:

    “Plowing through bloated prose… ” could almost be the entire succinct sentence for this post! Loved it all 👌🏿

  • Shabnam says:

    So to the point!
    “Writing is the messy process of wrestling with those ideas, taming them into insights.”
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  • jeffseitzer says:

    Great essay. It’s a soul struggle, cutting things out. But you’re right that writing is almost always better when you do. When I think it just isn’t possible to cut more, I recall an editing exercise for students I read about in a New Yorker essay, Omission by John McPhee. Cut out one-third of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Okay, back at it!

  • simplymala says:

    Nice. Agreed on these- “….we have to put our work aside for a bit, make it unfamiliar, then reread…”

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