Lamenting the wordiness of learned people (Crastina Column, april 2017)

Being the project leader for Crastina, I introduced  the theme of April & May – ”short & punchy” – with this column. Its main message can be summarised by paraphrasing Coleridge: “Text, text, everywhere, Nor any message to get.” 

Exhibit A: The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, hugely impacted the world since the 7th century BC.

And yet it was printed (according to tradition) on just two stone slabs.

Exhibit B: The article Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid by Francis Crick and James D. Watson hugely impacted the world since 25 April 1953.

And yet it filled just one page of the scientific journal Nature.

Exhibit C: The online document The Manifesto for Agile Software Development hugely impacted the world since February 2001.

And yet, it has fewer words than the text that you are currently reading.

These three texts are the result of extended observation, analysis and thinking. But they all manage to convey ideas concisely. To make these ideas easy to grasp, the creators removed any material that could obscure the reader’s view.

We can learn three things from this:

  • Time spent by the sender, is time saved by the receiver.
  • Superfluous information hides core content.
  • Concise writers have to be brave: to make a point is to take a stand!

Unfortunately, many professionals are moving in the opposite direction, helped by electronic writing tools. As the pace of modern life increases, so does wordiness. Brevity and clarity take time; lengthiness and murkiness is a sign of haste. Every ten minutes a writer saves, the reader loses.

Here are a few ways to avoid wordiness:

  • Make sure you know your subject. If you don’t, read more.
  • Before you start typing, define a first version of your main ideas. Maybe with a pencil and a notebook?
  • There are always things you can remove from your text. Kill your darlings.

Shakespeare once wrote that “Brevity is the soul of wit”. I agree.

And I am done here – full stop.

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