The Art Of Brevity In Writing

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This week I was asked by my professor to give a presentation summarizing my entire project in just one PowerPoint slide. It was a nightmare for me as just a day earlier I had prepared a deck of slides filled with details and was quite excited to have covered it so comprehensively. But I found this new task of brevity to be particularly challenging since I have developed a habit of elaborating and over-explaining things. I did to get rid of any assumption and misunderstanding that audience may have. But in the present world, with reduced attention spans and where we often here about “less is more”, learning the art of brevity is not only valuable but an essential skill. 

Nowadays, we see an explosion of web pages with headings like “top 5 tricks to do this”, “top 3 ways to impress your boss” and many more. While such headlines are certainly based on marketing gimmicks, but one of the prime reasons for their popularity is their brevity and clarity of communication. Such writers use minimum words to capture maximum attention. They deploy catchy verbs, adjectives, even images to craft their message as per the readers psychology of attention. 

In this article, let us explore “brevity” in modern communication to appreciate its much wider impact. William Shakespeare famously said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” In “The Elements of Style”, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White tell us to “omit needless words.” Brevity has gradually become the benchmark of evaluating someone’s writing craft. With the evolution of web pages and social media marketing, it has caught up as a wildfire of marketing prominence among companies, writers, and freelancers. Everyone is aiming to catch as many eye balls as possible while we are also witnessing a sharp reduction in attention spans of humans. As per the research conducted by Kristina Gligoric, EPFL, Switzerland, “concise messages are on average more successful than the original messages up to a length reduction of 30–40%.” But here, it is also important to demarcate the difference between brevity and conciseness. Brevity often refers to use of few words but conciseness refers to a large amount of matter being confined in a short space.

Brevity
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Apart from being able to provide the visualization of writer’s idea in reader’s mind, some additional benefits of having brevity in writing include: 

  • High information density- An equation, figure, statistical data representation, powerful phrase can convey much more in few space
  • Respects the time of reader and prevents them from meandering thoughts with little real insight
  • Saves environment, also in way, by saving paper as more words printed often means more trees cut

Is being “brief” always advantageous? 

But does being “brief” has only advantages? Can every idea be described using “fewer words”? Doesn’t explanation of details and elaborate expression hold a key place in any scholarly writing? Let us critically evaluate if the trend of brevity is doing is more harm than good, at least in certain forms of writing.  

Brevity has begun to supersede clarity as an importance in our eyes. – Kathy Henning. We are slowly abhorring large pieces of writing and there is a rising phenomenon among writers to convey all that they want “in their first two paragraphs”. Brevity has caught up so much momentum, thanks to the diminishing attention spans of humans, that we often end up appreciating or critiquing an article purely based on its brevity. It is like putting horse before the cart where brevity takes precedence over clarity. Brevity often can end up communicating information in an unclear and half-baked manner leaving a lot to the interpretation of readers. While writing it is only the writer who is aware of his thoughts but a well written article is evaluated based on how it is perceived by the readers and brevity can cause a gap in communicating the intention of writer to the interpretation of reader. 

Another issue with being too “brief” sometimes is that we, intentionally or otherwise, end up using hyperbole, untruth, selective opinions and hence we lose the sincerity and relevance with the topic. As rightly said by Jean Giraudoux” The key of success is sincerity”. If a writer’s true duty is to do justice to the topic, brevity could be a hindrance here. It may end up doing more harm because when authors do not put forth a critical view of current significance, subduing to the pressure of being brief, readers tend to blindly follow such opinions and it gradually gives birth to a wrong trend of “popular ideas” which is not easy to reverse. Hence it is important that we provide the due relevance, rigor, and clarity to the thought/idea which we are writing about. Selling the idea cannot take precedence over preaching the idea itself. 

So, what prevents us from being “brief”? 

I would like to give an example from my school days to highlight the kind of attitude our education system is proliferating. Since my childhood, I used to write a lot in my exams where I was more concerned about getting all the pages of answer booklet filled than providing the desired answer in methodical way. Teachers used to incentivize us for writing more as the students who wrote using maximum additional answer sheets also happened to score the most. I slowly got tricked to develop the idea that if we write more, it indicates that we know more and this idea had concretized by the time I reached by graduation days. Unfortunately, even during my engineering days, we had questions weighing 15 marks/20 marks. And in most of the engineering colleges at India, it has become an unsaid norm of filling up at least 12-15 pages for each such question. As I entered the business world, I realized that it was not “how much I wrote” that mattered but “’how well did I write”. Since then, I am attempting to recover from my earlier way and adopt brevity in my writing but it will take a long time to recourse an age-old habit. Hence, if we want to develop better writers, school teachers need to stop incentivizing writing more and instead reward clear, precise, and relevant piece of writing. 

While the above suggestion is specific to the context of our Indian education system, other generic suggestions to be kept in mind to learn practicing brevity include: 

  • Refrain from adding irrelevant details
  • Avoid repeating/redundant ideas and words
  • Eliminate non-word fillers
  • Use most relevant phrases and
  • Curtail the desire to explain too much

Brevity would always remain the soul of the wit. It is a hard skill to practice but when combined with clarity it can make our communication effective and enhance its reach for the welfare of larger people. While maintaining relevance and sufficient detailing is equally vital in many situations, brevity is an equally potent ally of every writer. As we move forward, every author must remember what comedian George Burns said “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to get these two as approximate as possible”. 

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