How To Write with Brevity

Brevity doesn’t come naturally to me. I tend to write long responses, blog posts, even long text messages. So I’m probably not the ideal candidate to write about brevity. And yet, perhaps this makes me uniquely qualified.

I’m like Anne Shirley who, after delivering several monologues to Matthew Cuthbert on their first meeting, asked “But am I talking too much? People are always telling me I do. Would you rather I didn’t talk? If you say so I’ll stop. I can stop when I make up my mind to it, although it’s difficult.”

Like Anne, I can curb my words. But unlike Anne, I don’t need to cease all forms of communication entirely to do so. I can practice restraint in moderation (which is perhaps more difficult than stopping altogether).

In brief, the trick to writing with brevity is to provide restraints. When I started my blog, I restricted my posts to 1000 words or less, which in the blogosphere, is still rather long, but for me (and my usual 10 page personal essays), quite brief. And for awhile, I kept within this word count, or very nearly so.

But at some point, I relaxed my mandate, started writing longer, and longer posts. It’s not so much that I got lazy with my editing, as much as I lapsed into a longer form.

I like how Ann Patchett describes the different length forms:

“I saw the length of essays as track-and-field events; the 900-word essay was the shot put, 1,200 the high jump, 2,200 the long jump. Each one had a particular pacing and shape that I understood deeply. ‘Just write it as long as you want,’ some editors liked to say. ‘We’ll cut it down later.’ But a 2,000-word essay that’s cut to 800 words winds up feeling irrevocably mangled to me, as if I can see the lines of stitching running between the paragraphs.” (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage)

To modify Patchett’s analogy I’ll say that, for me, writing different length essays is like participating in different running events (she honed in on the “field” not “track” part of it).

And so, a 750 word essay might be a 100-meter sprint; a 3,000 word essay, a steeplechase seven and a half times around the track, complete with obstacles and water; and a 5,000-6,000 word essay (where I tend to hang out) is totally off the rubberized track altogether and into the forest: it’s a cross-country race where you’re now running with the good clean earth under your feet.

I’ve participated (very amateur-ly) in each of these races, and can attest that though they’re all running events, there’s a world of difference in technique and pacing. You wouldn’t use sprinting techniques in a long distance run; and hopefully, would have no need to use ones unique to steeplechase in any other event.

So how does this apply to writing briefly?

I was recently impressed by the beauty of a short post published (quite fittingly) on Brevity‘s Nonfiction blog in which guest blogger Michael Noll — writing about applying fiction technique to essays — made every word count. Each of his 800 fueled his piece forward.

Of course, at all times, there’s the need to cut what’s unnecessary from our writing. But with the brief essay form — and I would include blog posts here — the focus is that much more disciplined. In the forest, you can afford to admire the scenery around you, breathe deeply of the damp air, and feel vitalized by it all, while still racing. When sprinting, you cannot afford to look to the left or the right; only straight ahead. Breathing catches your lungs on fire.

What I’ve found in writing brief blog posts (like the 750 word one you’re reading), is that I must have a clear focus: there’s little room to turn to the left or right. For me, that means sticking to a single topic and having a disciplined focus. I’m on a straight track. There are no digressions.

I tend to want to explore ten things at once. But it’s impossible to get to a destination — especially a clear-cut shot — if I’m trying to simultaneously go down ten pathways. Perhaps there are ten meandering trails which I’ll take sections of to arrive at a destination. But they should each be taking me closer to the finish, like the course in a several kilometer cross-country race through the woods.

But for the mad dash, stick to your lane, look to the finish, and make fast out of your blocks.


Question: What techniques do you use to write with brevity?