Brevity by the Numbers Part 1: How I Cheated My Way into a Brevity Byline

September 7, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

It was a simple enough idea: Read five years of Brevity, log each piece in an Excel database, then tickle the data until it tells me something useful about the common features of flash nonfiction essays. As a writer new to flash, I wanted to understand the rules of the genre, so I could be deliberate about breaking them. When I couldn’t find much literature to guide me, I decided to make my own. A secret, shameful part of me wondered if graphs and statistics could help me crack the code to getting my own Brevity byline.

Apparently, the real cheat code to a Brevity byline (see it? right there? below the title?) is spelunking wildly beyond my depth and soliciting an interview with editor Dinty W. Moore, who then invited me to transform my research into a series of craft essays for the Brevity Blog.

I shouldn’t be here. I’m not a professor, or especially well published. Though I supervise (and am supervised by) people who know Python, I cannot speak the language of the snakes, don’t know how to programmatically scrape the web, can’t write to an Azure instance, or arrange SELECTs and semicolons into a SQL statement. I have carved a niche for myself, professionally, wherein I transform research done by others into compelling stories. None of the very smart people I work with were involved in this project.

What I am is curious. Like many creative nonfiction writers, I style myself a scientist, poking at the world and myself to test hypotheses, as eager to be proven wrong as right. So I set this curiosity to work, reading flash after flash in the precious hours after the baby happily curled into his sleep sack and the toddler unhappily lay down in her big-kid bed (but only after I completed the correct number of kisses to specific body parts, both of which varied nightly).

My process was simple, studious, and a skosh error prone. As I read every Brevity essay published between 2017-2021, I logged the numbers associated with each in an Excel database with the help of WordCounter.net. I arbitrarily decided upon the site after a search for free word counting tools, but over time gained great affection for its soothing blue color scheme, its motto “Every Word Counts,” and its bold exhortation to “Bookmark this page now.” With WordCounter.net’s aid, every Brevity essay transformed, alchemy-like, into an Excel row of numbers: longest and shortest sentences, word and paragraph counts, essay type, point of view—34 columns in all.

From there, the steps were simple, and therefore confounding:

  1. Find and correct errors. Worry about the errors that remain unfound.
  2. Pivot the table. Pivot my thinking. Pivot 360 degrees in a circle.
  3. Make graphs. Tell the graphs how pretty they look. Find the graphs uncaring.
  4. Worry the reason this has never been done before is that it is a colossal waste of time.

Brevity should come with a warning label—flash is an addictive substance. The magazine is brimming with tiny worlds, or as managing editor Zoë Bossiere calls them in her introduction to The Best of Brevity (published in honor of the magazine’s 20th anniversary) “beacon[s] of small truths” (xvii). The essays went down easy—like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Milk & Cookies—but were similarly heavier in the belly than they were on the tongue.

Nightly, I made myself sick. Long after I closed my laptop, I wondered about the non-pandemic version of Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Me vs. Slugs: Pandemic Edition.” Wrote “breathtaking” next to Carrie Jade Williams’ “When I Speak Why Do I Become More Invisible?” Tried to recall where I’d read Laurie Easter’s “Kindness and Sorrow” before. Spun out for hours on 333 words, 68.8% of them unique, all of them bitterly laughing at the cancer risk underlying Anne Panning’s hermit crab “Intro to BRCA1+ Quiz.

Like the not-quite scientist I am, I started formulating a theory long before the data set was complete. Flash essays seemed not quite a big thing shrunk small, but rather, a fun house mirror reflection of a larger essay. Short sentences just as short. Long just as long. But also, just as much emotion, reflection, action, scene, dialogue, all of it stuffed into a wee package. The tone tended sadder. Brighter. Sharper.

Early conclusion: subtlety is not for the small. Economy leaves no room for buildup, no mild arc to a restrained-yet-satisfying conclusion. In his introduction to The Best of Brevity, Moore writes, “In such a small allotment of words, there is no time to clear one’s throat, to gently introduce the story before moving leisurely along to the point of tension, the moment the reader’s curiosity is piqued” (x). In a flash essay you best immediately punch me in the eye, offer me a raw steak to sooth the hurt, then tell a joke so I’ll laugh through the pain.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? A life, contained in a thimble, built with a stranger’s words.

After inhaling five years of flash, I became convinced that I will never write as well as all of you. That I will never bend the creativity to the metrics, or the metrics to the creativity, to unlock the spell of this particular magic. That there is some spark Brevity authors have, something I see in myself only occasionally, such that I read your work and wonder how some squishy gray matter could have pulled these words, an average of 4.5 characters in length, from the dictionary and placed them just so.

With my Brevity database complete, I gazed across a sea of numbers, unable to quiet my internal critic. After all this time, had I discovered anything at all? I’d rather read another five years of Brevity than figure out what to say about it.

So I’m not going to. At least, not in this craft essay.

See, I really shouldn’t be here—I’m cheating even now, splitting my findings across three essays (at Dinty’s suggestion no less), thereby neatly avoiding the recommended word limit. Stay tuned for part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers”: Word clouds and other squishy results.

__

Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

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