Brevity vs. Poetry: A Writer’s Dilemma

Writer E.B. White “was troubled by the absolutism of such rules” as set out in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, says*.

White would respond to letter writers who had questions, comments, complaints, and compliments about the different rules and dictums set forth in the book that every college freshman buys, skims, and then never reads again.

“Avoid needless words,” was S&W’s admonishment to the blatherers in English Comp classes.

“Write down to the bones,” said every college journalism professor. “Scrape off all the fat.”

Problem is, this approach oftentimes results in the very life of the language being sucked right out of the piece. It’s the rhythm of the language that makes it enjoyable to read.

Ernest Hemingway

“I think that I shall never see/a lion as lovely as one shot by me.”

Would Ernest Hemingway Make a Good Poet?

I decided a long time ago that my writing style would be concise and simple. Hemingway-esque. Avoid adverbs, that sort of thing. (Although I’m still a sucker for a well-placed adjective.)

This contradicts the writing style students are being taught in colleges and universities: utilizing multi-syllabic, complex words that very few people, including the professor truly understood, but make you sound erudite; long, meandering sentences that endeavor to explain and clarify one’s thoughts with as many extraneous words as possible, which make you sound educated; and, whackingly long Faulkner-esque paragraphs that, when printed out on standard paper, can wipe out an entire rain forest, with bonus points being granted if you can use one sentence for a multi-line paragraph, like this sentence here.

This isn’t writing, it’s vocabulary vomiting. Students are being told that in order to communicate “effectively,” they have to use big words. As a result, when I meet a new graduate who wants to be a writer, this is the first habit I break them of, and teach them to use simpler, more vivid picturesque language. There’s a place for simplicity, but also a place for the beauty of the language.

This usually brings us to a different problem, where writers — especially nonfiction writers — are taught to avoid all adverbs and adjectives, even metaphors and similes, for the sake of simple, scientific, logical writing. (They are all then put into boxes and delivered by the truckload to the Creative Writing department, but that’s a different blog post.)

Use Language’s Natural Rhythm

The problem with this oversimple, journalistic-style writing is the language tends to be dry. Describe the facts, without hyperbole or exaggeration. Present them in the fewest words as possible to save on column inches and to keep readers involved as long as possible.

But, what about the poetry of language? Language has a natural rhythm that makes some words a better fit than others. Some writers are masters at this, and Hemingway was one of the few who could find the rhythm in his sparse style. Other people who do it well are speechwriters. Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, excelled at it, as did Reagan and Clinton’s speechwriters.

As White said in a letter in his book, The Letters of E.B. White:

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Writing is a “journey into sound.” That’s the natural rhythm of language. Tap into it, and people will read your work, long after they swore they would quit. Many times I’ve found myself promising to only read 10 pages before I go to sleep, only to look at the clock and see that two hours have passed.

Roger Angell, the baseball writer for The New Yorker, is a master at finding rhythm, but doing it in long sentences. He uses 80 words to weave an Appalachian Trail of a sentence to make you feel like you’re sitting at the ballpark with him. He still needs every word to do it though. There are very few “needless words” in a Roger Angell article.

Simple Writing is Not Stripped Down Writing

Simple writing is not just striking out everything but nouns and verbs. It means choosing the very best words.

It’s like how a minimalist decorates their house: they don’t have just a TV and a couch in the living room. They’ll also have books on a bookshelf, but only 50 of their most favorite books in all the world.

Simple writers may use only a few words, but they use the right words that convey exactly what they want to say. They don’t explain the words they use, they use the richest words that hold the most meaning.

The secret to writing poetically and with brevity is to find the most vivid words with the deepest meaning to properly convey the message, and tap into the their rhythm to carry your thoughts.

* If you’re a writer, or you care about words, read every day, and subscribe to the newsletter. Also, follow @BrainPicker on the Twitter.

Five Books Every Blogger Should Read or Own

Writers need to read if they want to improve. We learn, we borrow, we’re influenced, and in some cases, we steal.

Whether you’re a blogging veteran or wet-behind-the-ears rookie, there are certain books that will give you the knowledge, insight, and ability to be an effective blogger.

I am always reading books, sometimes in my industry, sometimes outside (my favorites are Christopher Moore humor novels and British murder mysteries), and trying to learn some of the techniques these writers use.

I have five books that I think every blogger should own, or at least read, if they want to improve their writing and become a better blogger.

These five books vary in industry and focus. They may tell you how to blog, how to write, or how to spell. But these are the five books that I have found to be the most valuable in my own professional blogging career.

  • Corporate Blogging for Dummies: My good friend, Douglas Karr (@douglaskarr), and Chantelle Flannery wrote this tome for corporate bloggers everywhere. And while the title suggests it’s for corporate bloggers, anyone who wants to be a blogger can learn from this one. It talks about why blogging is important, what tools are available, and even how to write blog posts.
  • The AP Stylebook: I’ve long maintained that blogging should follow AP Style when it comes to settling confusing questions of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. After all, we’re becoming citizen journalists, so we should follow journalistic style. The AP Stylebook can answer odd and esoteric questions, like the “proper” abbreviation of state names (AP style does not use the two letter postal abbreviations), whether to capitalize job titles (you don’t, unless you’re referring to the President of the United States), and even whether to use an Oxford comma (they don’t, but I think they’re horribly wrong about this one.)
  • Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing: (affiliate link) I am a regular listener of Mignon Fogarty’s (@GrammarGirl) “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips” podcast, and recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their grammar and punctuation usage. Her book on Better Writing is also a must for anyone who wants to improve their writing mechanics, and avoid the little nagging errors that are so tiny but seem to throw everyone into a terrible tizzy. (I’m also a fan of the A Way With Words show on NPR/podcast, but they don’t have a book out. Plus, I made Grammar Girl’s “Wordsmiths” Twitter list, which I’m very proud of.)
  • Ernest Hemingway’s short stories: If you want to learn how to write with punch and power, read Hemingway. Especially his short stories. Especially anything with Nick Adams (Big Two-Hearted River). It has that punchy, short dramatic style that tells you how to craft short sentences that carry a lot of impact. Hemingway cut his teeth at the Kansas City Star in 1917, learning the style that made him the most recognized writer of his day. While some of his language and ideas are definitely from the early 1900s, his writing style is still something to study and learn from.
  • Once More Around the Park

  • Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Park: Roger Angell is the baseball writer for The New Yorker, and the master of the long meandering sentence. If Hemingway is a boxer, writing short, punchy sentences, Roger Angell is the old dude doing tai chi in the park on a warm Sunday morning, moving slowly but fluidly, and never stopping until he has achieved inner peace and gotten a low-impact workout in at the same time. Angell’s descriptions of baseball games, baseball fans, and even the parks is something even the non-fan will enjoy. It’s a book I definitely recommend reading, whether you’re a baseball fan or not. While the fan will appreciate his explanation of the games and the names of the fan’s childhood, the writer will appreciate the images Angell is able to conjure up, and the ease at which he writes long, smart sentences that carry the sounds and smells of a faraway day.
  • What are some of your favorite books for writers and bloggers? Are there any that you recommend? Any that you would stay away from? Leave a comment and let’s hear from you.