Lengthy speeches, lengthy articles, and lengthy prayers are usually tiresome. Life is short, and we must learn to condense and intensify our thoughts. Many writers are too voluminous. They wrap up one idea in so many words that it is almost smothered with verbosity. There is a multiplication of words, an inflation, a redundancy that is unnecessary and unwelcome. An editor was once cornered by a would-be contributor who wished to know why he could never break into print in this editor's journal. The editor replied, "Your stuff is so thin you can see through it."
Even boresome exhortations are easily borne if short. " 'Tis better to be brief than tedious,' says Shakespeare. "It is hideous to say nothing at great length," warns Spurgeon. And Robert Southey admonishes us: "Be brief, for it is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn." Strive for compactness, directness, terseness in your writing. Briefly and concisely tell your story, condensing your thoughts and eliminating nonessentials. Let it not be said of your writings as it was of one man's speech : "As soon as he began speaking, I knew he would be going a long time. He had a circuitous-working-up-to-a-conclusion voice."
Give your readers the most possible in the least possible space, thus conserving their time. "That writer does the most who gives his readers the most knowledge and takes from them the least time."—C. C. Cotton.
A quotation from the Apocrypha reads: "Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in few words." And we find similar advice in the gospel of Matthew: "Use not vain repetitions." Notice the brevity of the Bible. How much is said in so few words in this, the Classic of the ages!
Some time ago an advertisement fell into my hands from which I gleaned a valuable extract. This is not quoted for advertising purposes, but because it is so pertinent on the subject of brevity:
"Mr. Dana's Suil rated brevity as a cardinal virtue and was the textbook of journalism. Every good reporter did his own copy cutting. Death to stereotyped adjectives! These were Spartan rules, much like the rules which have made the Reader's Digest a privilege and a delight. There are times when we want to find out something without having the subject matter surrounded by parsley, scrollwork, and passementerie. Voluminous writing demands of the reader prolonged toil, and not infrequently we want to read what is current and up to date, without condemning ourselves to hard labor."—George Ade.
Lincoln's famous Gettysburg address contained only 267 words. A few words, if well chosen, can convey a world of meaning. The story is told of an editor, who, in returning a long manuscript, enclosed this terse note : "Boil it down ; story of creation of world told in eighty words." It was said of the journalist, E. W. Howe:
"He never wrote an obscure line in his life. He was an enemy of what is known as lofty writing. He refused to soar. While others expanded their paragraphs until they were as fluffy as the beaten white of an egg, Howe served his thoughts in the fewest possible words. His essays were like hard-boiled eggs—compact and nutritious."
One way of securing brevity is to avoid needless repetition. Too many identical words are used twice or more in close proximity. It is sometimes permissible to repeat a word or a thought for emphasis, for amplification, for parallelism, or because there may be no other word to use. In such cases the author designedly does so, but too often repetitions come in because of carelessness or thoughtlessness. That is often repeated unnecessarily, as, "I think that when all is said that you will agree with me." An analysis of one sentence in an article under preparation showed that the word "that" occurred five times. In working it over, the sentence was broken up into two sentences with one "that" in each. Thus was produced a far better construction.
Repetition often occurs in phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs, as well as in words. The same thought, sometimes in almost the same identical phrasing, will be found in two or more places in the same article. Repetition is more permissible and perhaps more necessary in speaking than in writing, in order to bring home an important point, for an audience has nothing to refer back to. But in writing, where space must be preserved, if a reader needs to review a certain thought, he can easily turn to the printed words and read it again.
Space is at a premium around most editorial offices, and if the writer does not eliminate needless repetition from his manuscript, the editors more than likely will. Perhaps it would be less painful if the writer would do this himself before sending off the manuscript.
The next article in this series on writing will be a discussion on the choice of words.
M. A. H.