October 23, 2018 § 9 Comments
Writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent elimination.
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
October 12, 2017 § 30 Comments
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., edited by E. B. White.
In 1974, my Journalism 101 professor gave only two pieces of required reading: the local city newspaper, and The Elements of Style.
One book. One daily.
What could be easier?
Turned out, a lot of things. Concise writing takes diligence, skill, and patience. Three things I lacked as a college sophomore. But I pecked away on my typewriter, practicing every day, until I finally scored a coveted reporter’s job, the first of many.
Thirty years later, resurrecting my writing career, I faced a no-nonsense adjunct teaching The Art of Flash Nonfiction. She required we start small—only 250 words written to prompts she provided the first week, 500 words the next week, then 750, until we reached a polished 1000-word essay by the end of the semester. Plus we would read a series of essays from a website called Brevity. We could email her brief questions only if absolutely necessary.
A thousand words. On-line reading.
What could be easier?
She passed out a Brevity essay, Debra Marquart’s Hochzeit. “Read the essay to yourselves,” she said, “then tell me what’s different about it.”
The story swirled in front of my eyes in a whirlwind of colors, sounds, flavors and scents, as the author remembers a family wedding from her childhood. Thirty-nine sentences in seven meager paragraphs transported me to a Polka hall in the Midwest, the beat and bellow of pumping accordions, “whoops and yips” from spinning dancers in their flared skirts and beribboned finery, and the burning sweetness of “gold pools of wedding whiskey.”
Marquart’s writing was different from anything I’d read. It wasn’t your standard nonfiction piece, it wasn’t journalism—even if you could measure it in column inches, and it wasn’t the New Journalism the old me left behind decades ago. I needed to know why the piece left such a visceral impact on me.
When the instructor asked what we thought, my hand crept up. “The writer omitted needless words?”
“Yes. That’s one thing. Thank you, E.B. White. Anyone else?” The class tittered.
“The who, what, when, where, and sometimes why, are clearly up front,” I added, reaching back to the first rules I learned about newspaper reporting.
“Yes,” she said, “but what else. Anyone besides Ryder?”
I sunk back down in my hard plastic chair. What exactly was it about Marquart’s essay that had awakened me?
Our assignment for the week was to write two 250-word essays. If they were one word over, they would not be read or graded. We were given more essays from Brevity—Anne Panning’s Candy Cigarettes; Sarah Lin’s Devotion; Erika Dreifus’ Before Sunrise—to study for style, voice, metaphor, lyricism. Carefully. If we did not understand the terminology we were to email her—briefly—before the next class.
For seven long days, I slaved over my two pieces, editing and re-editing. I dissected the reading assignments like a frog in freshman biology, peeling back each story’s tiny skin layer by layer. First the story line, then the structure, finally the writer’s word choices. I searched for every metaphor, each simile, every omitted word. What was it about these little essays that left me with a feeling of such grandiosity in so few words?
It came to me on the seventh day—driving the twenty miles to campus alone, windows rolled down to bright September. My eyes took in the reds, golds and oranges of the maple leaves flickering across my windshield, backlit by a sky the color of the bluest sea. The sun shone on my arm resting on the open window, the last of summer falling onto my Shetland sweater. Finally, I understood. It was the smaller details that made the larger story.
After we handed in our assignments, the instructor asked what we’d learned reading and writing short prose. I shot up my hand.
“Yes?” she said, sighing a little.
“The words seemed hand-chosen, cherry-picked, then boiled down to extract only the most essential details. The writer shows the reader a dreamlike memory, crystal clear in the telling.”
“Bingo!” she said and smiled broadly.
Two semesters later, I entered a Brevity Blog contest and won second place. The first person I emailed was my instructor. Writing, I realized, is not just about following style books and memorizing classroom notes. When you omit the needless, you choose the necessary– and sometimes, that is one perfect ray of sun falling on the back of your hand.
Ryder S. Ziebarth runs the Cedar Ridge Writers Series and blogs for Proximity. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as an Associate editor of Tiferet Journal. Her work has appeared in Brevity, N Magazine, The New York Times, The Writer’s Circle, Tiferet, and many other other blogs, newspapers and online journals.
March 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
This blog post is, really, a confession of love, though I suspect it’s not much of a confession… that you all already know that I love Brevity. I love it as a reader, because it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers, many of whom are just beginning their writing careers. I love it as a teacher of writing, because it allows me to build and rebuild my syllabi every semester around new and compelling works that lead my students toward a better understanding of both the art and the craft of creative nonfiction. And I love it as a person who cares about literature, because it fosters a community of readers and writers alike who are passionate about and dedicated to the transformative power of good writing.
I’m writing this to ask you to join me in supporting this thing that I—that we—love. We’re launching Brevity’s first fundraiser today; a Kickstarter campaign to fund our special issue on gender and some of the journal’s operating costs. (Which, for the most part, have throughout its history been funded from Dinty’s pocket. I think it’s time to say both “thank you” and “hey, why don’t you let us pitch in?” I’m betting that you think so, too, and that’s why I talked him into this Kickstarter.)
Many, many of Brevity’s authors have contributed exciting rewards: signed copies of books, essay critiques. We are also offering the usual postcards, bumper stickers, and mugs, because Brevity is nothing if not aware of genre conventions, and this IS a Kickstarter, after all. Heck, you can even join us at #AWP16 in LA for “Brunch with Brevity,” where we promise you can order both the bacon AND the sausage while talking shop with Dinty and the editors. We think our swag is the best swag, and we’re proud to bring it to you.
But, mostly—like Brevity itself—this Kickstarter is about the love of good writing, and about supporting the things we love and find important. I hope you’ll agree with me that Brevity is worth supporting, and contribute. The campaign runs through April 23rd, but don’t wait. We have some great rewards, but not many of most of them.
View the Kickstarter Here, and Thank You,.
Sarah Einstein, Special Gender Issue Co-Editor and Huge Brevity Fangirl
January 10, 2012 § 8 Comments
Here on the tippy-top floor of the Brevity corporate towers, we are just about fed up to our necklines with editor Dinty W. Moore, who does very little of the work yet seems happy at any moment to expound on “what we are looking for in a Brevity essay.” His latest off-the-cuff approximation of wisdom can be found this week on the River Teeth blog. Here is one gem from that conversation:
“You need to move in and out of scene quickly, you need to introduce language, diction, and rhythm immediately, and you need to establish place, character, and conflict right away – usually in the first sentence. “
Later he has the nerve to say this:
“I wish I knew how much work the magazine would become. I wish I’d been less of a control freak and brought in more people to help me sooner.”
Really? The sound you hear now is twenty or so senior editorial staff members spitting out their coffee.
Somebody sit this guy down and tell him it is time to retire, will ya?
November 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore will be at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis later this week, with a public reading Friday at 7 p.m. The Loft’s blog featured an interview with him recently, including some thoughts about Brevity submissions:
In addition to being a writer and professor, you edit the online journal Brevity. Can you talk about that experience? How does working as an editor impact your writing? How do you find a balance? What are you seeing too much of/not enough of in terms of submissions to the journal?
Editing a journal is both a fascinating and humbling experience. There are so many good writers out there, and I wish we had the time and space to feature all of them. But the sad fact for Brevity, and so many literary journals, is that we are a cash-strapped, time-constrained volunteer organization, so what we can do is a tiny portion of what we wish we could do. I’d love to see our magazine come out weekly, or monthly, for instance. But then I would have to let go of all of my other work, including writing, and teaching, and sleeping.
What do we see too much of? Writing that doesn’t dig down into the experience. Writing of the “look, this happened, and I’m making it into a scenic narrative” sort, without any surprise or risk being taken. Also, writing that doesn’t exercise the language. Our journal limits submissions to 750 words or less, so we want writers who make every word count.
October 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
We were a bit late getting our copy of Best American Essays 2011 because the donkey mail cart got stuck in the mud outside of Coolville, but we have it now, and are pleased to see so many Brevity authors represented. Steven Church’s brilliant essay on sound, “Auscultation,” made the front of the book alongside Lia Purpura’s meditation on changing land, “There are Things Awry Here.” A joyful number of Brevity authors made the Notable section in the back as well, including Marcia Aldrich, Susanne Antonetta, Joe Bonomo, Barrie Jean Borich, Brian Doyle, Gary Fincke, Kim Dana Kupperman, Margaret MacInnis, Patrick Madden, Lee Martin, Dinty W. Moore (Brevity‘s founding editor), Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Anne Panning, Joel Peckham and Ira Sukrungruang. We keep good company, we think.
January 29, 2009 § 5 Comments
Elizabeth Westmark discusses her essay “Tenderness,” found in the latest issue of Brevity:
I played the piano in college to earn money, accompanying future opera singers by the hour in closet-like wooden studios at the University of Florida’s music school. My favorite was Oonaugh, a young contralto from Scotland. She told me once that she always requested me as her accompanist because I “breathed with her.” She said that most of the other pianists played the music precisely, but didn’t allow for her to creatively deviate from the score or even seem to care that she was there. They were being paid to play the accompaniment. Period.
Unbelievably, that was almost forty years ago. These days, my husband and I live in a hundred-acre wood in the panhandle of Florida that we are restoring back into the longleaf pine forest it used to be.
One of my best sources for stories is a good friend named Harold. He told me once that I am the “onliest fancy woman” that has ever been nice to him. In Harold’s vernacular, “fancy” means educated. It’s close kin to “citified,” but is friendlier and has special connotations that Harold applies only to women. “Nice” means he knows he is welcome in my kitchen any morning of the week to pull up a stool, drink strong coffee and share a story or two.
Everybody’s got a story, whether they are in the country, the city or somewhere in-between. Finding the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary is like the squirt of juice from a cherry hidden in the middle of a chocolate.
Writing “Tenderness” was like that. When I heard Ronnie Thomley talking about living at the end of the power line with his little girls and rescuing the orphaned baby doe, I recognized another unsung storyteller, and sidled up so I could listen hard.
I tried to accompany the music of his words. I tried to breathe with him.