More on being concise

If the reader is faced with more words than meaning, he or she may very well lose the grip. The reader's mind can wander. You know what that feels like: you were reading along just fine, reading smoothly and understanding, and suddenly you wake up. Your mind has been elsewhere for the last five pages. Many things can cause concentration breaks, but one of those things is to get too many words for too few ideas. The mind is a monorail: when given too little to do, it will find a more engaging line to follow.

So writers need to be concise to hold the reader's attention. For the same reason that you would not, I hope, reveal to the reader a series of ideas he or she already knows, you should make every word tell for the reader.

We are wordy for two obvious reasons and perhaps several more subtle reasons.

First, we are wordy because we have been asked to write many 500-word essays when we had only 100-word ideas. Our teachers were really looking for us to extend our thoughts, to adventure with ideas. But for one reason or another, we were loath to adventure, so we learned early to pad our papers. In fact, we may have learned a whole language of padding. What is really insidious about this padding is that our school writing forms our style in most cases, so the padding becomes the pattern of all our writing. We may feel that we are really writing only when we use the wordy phrases that we have learned to associate with achieving that 500-word length.

Second, our speech is wordy. Writing should be speakable, should sound like speech. But writing most certainly should not be exactly like speech, given the poor organization of most speech, its poor grammar, and especially its wordiness. If you think that speech is concise, just look at an accurate transcript sometime. No one wants writing to sound like that.

Our speech is wordy for many reasons, one being that we are talking while thinking. In addition, sometimes we want to hold conversational space while working up our next idea. John Dean, for instance, in responding to the Senators on the Watergate Committee, kept saying "At that particular point in time . . ." With that rote phrase he was taking the time to organize his thoughts. But writing need not have, in fact must not have, such wordiness. The wonder of writing is that we have a huge advantage over speech: we can edit, we can take back the incorrect or insulting before it goes out, we can make the communication better than we first thought it.


Courtesy of John Mercer Associates,

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