On brevity in writing

Orwell from 1946 is a verbose article which argues for brevity.  It also errs, IMHO.

Most people accept his rules of writing:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

IMHO, It really depends on a few things:

1.  What is the purpose of the writing – report, argument, to convey a mood?
2.  Sometimes it’s necessary to go on at length to cover all points.
3.  Not all writing is a blogpost for people with attention span deficit.

He’s certainly right on a few counts:

1.  Weasel words and buzzwords are political.
2.  Beware the dreaded adjective or superlative.

And here are a couple of mine for good measure:

1.  Beware the use of capitalization to make a point.
2.  Not everything has to be written in point form – it’s ugly.

Can you imagine a love affair conducted in bullet checklist form?

1. Hand over the flowers;
2. Wine and dine her;
3. Tadger in;
4. Roll off and go to sleep.

Words are powerful and in combination, often in counterpoint, using techniques such as repetition – repetition, I say – they carry the reader more in a flow of ideas.  There’s a place for that which doesn’t descend into verbosity.  Difficult but it can be done.

If I’m reading a novel, I prefer the elegant or exciting prose to the bullet form.

[H/T Chuckles]

9 comments for “On brevity in writing

  1. Rossa
    August 22, 2012 at 07:27

    Says James using 17 points to make his point!

  2. Sackerson
    August 22, 2012 at 07:29

    Not a load of prolix, then?

  3. August 22, 2012 at 08:29

    Says James, writing in bullet form and reducing three pages to half a page, Rossa. Cf posts passim. 😉

    As I indicated in the second sentence, Sackers.

  4. Moggsy
    August 22, 2012 at 10:05

    About the time you get to #3 and the Maitra d kicks you out on the street you realise you missed out some important bullet points?

  5. August 22, 2012 at 10:26

    You get to go to high class restaurants? Wow. Send your phone number, Moggsy.

  6. JD
    August 22, 2012 at 11:42

    James, I’ve told you before – always write as if the person reading it is an eejit (you will not be wrong 90% of the time) so make sure you ‘lead them by the nose’ and make every sentence a logical follow on from the previous one: write an idiot’s guide in other words 🙂
    Have you ever read anything by Lord Denning? Don’t be that simplistic but you get the idea………

  7. Rossa
    August 22, 2012 at 13:51

    You’re the one who said “it’s ugly”, James. ‘Nuff said 🙂

  8. Moggsy
    August 22, 2012 at 13:56

    I heard of even some burger joints have bouncers would probably be oh-so scathing of any power point presentaion led to anything like a new risque cocktail title.

  9. August 22, 2012 at 19:19

    The authors of books on writing style mainly come from days before the internet. Readers of material online have evolved (or devolved). Writing for a book, mag, speech etc. remains much as usual and that old advice remains useful , but surely different advice is appropriate for today’s readers via screen, desktop, and even more so the users of hand-held contraptions everyone but me seems to have on their person at all times.

    I’d say that brevity and clarity is far more necessary online than elsewhere.

    Contrary to JD’s view, I ‘d say it’s preferable not to distrust the readers’ intelligence. 🙂

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