Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Lack of brevity

Why am I so wordy?

As noted by Pascal, writing short texts takes time:

"I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter. [Fr., Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.]"


This is one of the most basic observations on writing (cf. e.g. this discussione; beware that this link is “temporarily” defunct since mid-2009, due to server moves—allegedly, it will be re-activated in due time); and an explanation for the many rather lengthy texts I write: I have time enough to write the long versions, but not to shorten them to their ideal state. I could expound on this for a while, but, in the spirit of brevity, will not.

An ironic example

A quotation that I have seen on several occasions as an argument for brevity is

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

(From William Strunk’s The Elements of Stylee)

This has always struck me as an odd example, because the paragraph is itself a bit wordy. (Note that I do not blame Strunk for this: In context, it is perfectly reasonable, balanced, and well-written. Even the quoters may be excused, seeing that the passage has a high information-to-noise ratio. Nevertheless, there is some irony in this.) My attempt at shortening it further:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unneeded words, a paragraph no unneeded sentences, like a drawing should lack unneeded lines and a machine unneeded parts. Not all sentences need be short, nor all detail avoided and subjects only outlined, but every word must tell.

My version is hardly an example of good writing; certainly, it ignores other criteria used by Strunk; certainly, it over-focuses on one single aspect of writing. Still, it was possible to shorten the original 63 words/314 characters to 47 words/244 characters (excluding white-space, including punctuation). A greater effort could likely yield even better results—even while keeping the contents identical.


Any change of a text will bring a change of meaning. Sometimes this change is so minuscule that it can safely be ignored; sometimes it can be of critical importance. As more changes are made to a text, the risk of a critical change increases. As is, IMO, no critical changes have been made; although there are border-line cases (notably, the removal of “reason”, in the faith that the readers will understand the implications from context).

If we allow cutting out content without a major impact on meaning, better results can easily be reached, e.g.:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unneeded words, a paragraph no unneeded sentences, like a machine no unneeded parts. Not all sentences need be short, nor details avoided, but every word must tell.

(36 words/187 characters.)

Throwing style out of the window entirely:

Vigorous writing is concise. Sentences/paragraphs should contain no unneeded words/sentences, like a machine no unneeded parts. Sentences/details need not be short/avoided, but every word must tell.

(30 words/173 characters.)

Of course, what is more or less the same can be said even shorter, e.g.

Vigorous writing requires that dead-weight is cut out.

(8 words/47 characters.)

Or in the words of Einstein:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.


(13 words/61 characters.)

Or, indeed, with Strunk’s own section heading (immediately preceding the quoted paragraph):

Omit needless words.

(3 words/18 characters.)

(Obviously, it is misleading to compare the brevity of an elaboration with the statement it is an elaboration of.)

I am tempted to add one of my favourite principles, KISS, as an even further shortening; however, using an acronym is arguably cheating. (Further, “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” can even be taken to be incompatible with the original meaning—even at best it is only overlapping. Einsteins claim, in contrast, is easier to defend with regard to such attacks, even if it is not invulnerable to them.)