Brevity is a highly prized stylistic element. Brevity is characterized by a lack of verbosity. Brevity is synonymous with concision, terseness, precision.


Back in the day . . . in the dark ages before the internet . . . texts were expensive to produce and challenging to distribute. Prior to the internet, writers had somewhat captive audiences, and, on occasion, they could enjoy the stage a bit too much and launch into wordy prose, unnecessary details, and anecdotal, writer-based prose.

Victorian writers had a taste for the ornate and didn’t consider brevity a virtue, and many modern writers, like Tom Wolfe, have broken out of the cage, turning a headlong exuberance of language into a source of positive energy. Such skillful acrobats, however, are rare; most nonfiction writers will do well to cling to the ropes of simplicity and clarity.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Now, of course, this notion that people in the past were more patient is probably something of an overstatement. Even before the internet people disliked wasting their time:

“When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death”

Clarence Darrow, The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow

Still, the sensorium of everyday life may be altering our attention span, our memories, our ability to focus. At the least, it’s fairly inconververtable that our senses are bombarded with more information than ever before:

  • 1.7MB of data is created every second by every person during 2020.
  • In the last two years alone, the astonishing 90% of the world’s data has been created.
  • 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced by humans every day.
  • 463 exabytes of data will be generated each day by humans as of 2025.
  • 95 million photos and videos are shared every day on Instagram.
  • By the end of 2020, 44 zettabytes will make up the entire digital universe.
  • Every day, 306.4 billion emails are sent, and 5 million Tweets are made” (Techjury).

So . . . what’s the bottom line?

If you want readers who respect you, who keep with you to the end of the sentence, then you’ve got to take a hard look at your texts and attempt to make them as concise as possible.

Brevity & the Writing Process

One of the first steps toward brevity is rhetorical analysis: you need to know your audience well in order to ascertain what information is tangential or redundant, be aware of the preciousness of the reader’s time. Recognize there are million other things competing for the audience’s time. Only give the information the reader needs. Make sure nothing is ornamental, unnecessary, or repetitive.

When we first begin drafting, our focus is rightly on our ideas and experiences. Early during composing, we are wise to set aside stylistic concerns–especially concerns about brevity.

Eventually, however, before you submit a document to an instructor, boss, or colleague–well, any reader–you are wise to ruthlessly evaluate your prose. Here we need to step away from your ego. Yes, you may have spent hours, maybe even weeks, writing a text. But now, before you hand it over to your readers, once you’re confident you’ve written something worth sharing, you need to consider whether your can make our words more engaging, more vigorous, by stripping away the deadwood. Rhetors achieve brevity by eliminating unnecessary abstractions, jargon, clichés, awkward sentence constructions, weak verbs, tangled sentence patterns, unnecessary nouns, and overuse of prepositional phrases.

In a world where billions of instant messages and emails are sent daily, brevity is a virtue. People love conciseness. They respect writers and leaders who can explain difficult matters simply. Unfortunately, many writers use sentences that are too wordy.  This is not to suggest that lengthy sentences can never be used but most of the time writers make the mistake of using more words than necessary to get their message across.  Take this sentence, for example: 

  • “Michelle was supposed to have her car’s oil changed every 3,000 miles, and since it had been 3,000 miles since her last oil change, she took her car to the mechanic.”

This sentence is okay and makes sense, though the statement could be more precise if the author phrased it a little differently.  Describing the action first, followed by the reason, would improve it: 

  • “Michelle had the mechanic change her car’s oil because it had been 3,000 miles since the last one.”

This sentence conveys the same message and is more succinct and direct.  True, the sentence omits that Michelle “was supposed to have her car’s oil changed every 3,000 miles,” but we should know this already (or can presume so) from the word “because.”  The first sentence is acceptable, but some of the words are superfluous, which can disrupt the flow of your research paper. Just as a machine should not have extra parts, a sentence shouldn’t have any extra words. 

Resources

Edit for Brevity provides strategies you can employ to turbocharge your writing so it’s more understandable and persuasive.

Works Cited

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000. New York: Pocket Books, 2002. Print.

Strunk, William, Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. Print.