Writing Briefly is Writing Better

My Dad is a lawyer. I’ll pause to let you get the lawyer jokes out of your system.
All set? Great.
His job involves quite a lot of writing for his own cases and reading what other legal professionals have written in theirs. Occasionally, he shares a small tidbit that surfaced amidst the sea of legalese carrying some gem of language, a hint at what great writing can do.
The best one I’ve heard is the preface a justice wrote at the beginning of an opinion on a case my Dad had argued. It began, “I apologize for writing so much. If I had more time, I’d have written less.”
This paradox; where more time equals less prose, is something that smacks in the face of what the average US student picks up in grade school. I don’t blame the teachers (goodness knows they do so much for so little recognition) but the system. It is set up to reward quantity over quality all too often. Now, to some extent it gets better if you go on to college, but the esteemed writer, novelist, and somewhat successful humorist Dave Barry points out new issues college drags into the mix:
ENGLISH: This involves writing papers about long books you have read little snippets of just before class. Here is a tip on how to get good grades on your English papers: Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say that Moby-Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. Your professor, who is sick to death of reading papers and never liked Moby-Dick anyway, will think you are enormously creative. If you can regularly come up with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English.

That final line is what strikes at the heart of what has happened to our relationship with writing. Dashing kids’ creativity against the rocks of standardized testing hid behind fluffy names like “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core” warps our idea as to what writing is for. Students learn to assume that “Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory” and in the process entrench the belief that length is the best metric of good writing. What has this done to the writing landscape as a whole? Well, for one thing, its helped the liberal arts shoot themselves in the collective academic foot. The excellent guide On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, has a line that describes what I mean here:
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.
This comes from a book that first hit the shelves in 1976, before blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and fan fiction came to roost. I’ve heard complaints about how our kids can’t hold attention in class or engage in meaningful conversation. That because so much of our lives has been compressed into digital bits, we are losing a generation to “The Shallows” (Apologies to Nicholas Carr).
I propose that this is happening because of an age-old phenomenon: children disliking what they have to do in class. Students must sit still in class; so recess is full of running around and having fun. Screens, though they are seeping into the classrooms through the cracks, are a forbidden fruit; so texting and internet memes are the tantalizing apple.
What kind of writing is encouraged in school? The five-paragraph essay. At age eight. So the students, though they write more than any generation in history (and it shows), prefer shorter snack food-like chunks of text.
So I propose we push our education system to judge writing differently: is it pleasant to read, effective in expressing a message? Is it long enough to get the point across, regardless if it took Jane two paragraphs even though it took Sally two pages?
This encourages better writing in two ways: it changes the internal conditions a student uses to consider their work “done”, and it makes what they write more enjoyable for them.
The first way would be a shift from how Joe Student evaluates his essay currently. He asks himself one question: Is it long enough? If it is, he finds a way to somehow wrap up the mental secretions in a cardboard-box summary, then throws it onto the conveyor belt leading to the grade books. (Side note: the fact that I can equate writing an essay to preparing my Amazon prime package of assorted light bulbs and munchies is just sad.)
If length isn’t the primary metric, it forces Joe Student to ask the deeper questions that cause a great writer to develop: Are my thoughts expressed the way I wanted to? Is the concept there? Suddenly, the processes Teachers ache to instill in their pupils arise naturally, because they must if the student wants to succeed. It might sound a bit like tossing a bird out of the nest, but like a young fledgling, a human brain is wired for language. It might not be graceful, but it will take flight.
The second way comes as a result of the changes from the first. I firmly believe that engaged minds are happier minds, and with these new paradigms of in-class writing, the student can hopefully dip into the writing flow.
And if, as a side-affect, a teacher gets to read more interesting stuff, all the better.
Outside of the educational argument, there is the argument that gives this post its title: shorter writing is often just better. It is great to have access to Webster’s dictionary, or Wikipedia, or any number of massive English style guides, but maybe the most effective and influential tool from this massive pile is the 85 page pamphlet by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. Here is TIME magazine’s article on it when they listed it as one of the top 100 nonfiction books ever written.
This book is an example of the mindset I’m talking about, applied to the extreme. And it succeeds brilliantly.
So try it out yourself. Even if you aren’t a student, challenge yourself to write with a maximum length. See if you can give yourself a Six-word memoir.
See, what I’m trying to say is, 140 characters—the original maximum length of a twitter tweet—is long enough for a single run-on sentence that is 80% junk. Its what we can’t help but write if trained to write by length. But 140 characters is also 52% of the Gettysburg Address.
Learn to write briefly, and you end up writing better.

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