Economy of words, great quotes, and good writing


"Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief"    William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
Mark Twain
Mark Twain
Robert Southey
Robert Southey

At one of those insufferably tedious trade conventions we've all been to, the keynote speaker arrived at the podium, cleared his throat and started his speech with "I have so much to say, I really don't know where to begin" , whereupon some helpful person from the audience immediately shouted, "why don't you begin as close to the end as you can!"

During the Civil War, on November 19, 1863, two noted politicians were scheduled to speak at the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The first was Edward Everett.  Everett had a remarkable career, having served as U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, Governor of Massachusetts, Secretary of State, and President of Harvard University.  Now perhaps the foremost orator in the nation, he spoke for more than two hours, delivering over 13,000 words. Afterward, President Abraham Lincoln spoke for just over 2 minutes, delivering his brief 272 word Gettysburg Address. Both Everett and his words are now mostly forgotten; Lincolns' "brief remarks" are forever enshrined in the hearts and minds of most every American and engraved in the marble of many of our public buildings.

Throughout the war, Lincoln's biting wit and spare words allowed him to rebuke even generals in a sentence. To a hesitant General George B. McClellan, who wouldn't engage the enemy, Lincoln, commander in chief, said: "If you don't intend to use the army, won't you lend it to me?" And to another, "I can make more Generals, but horses cost money." Of a politician he disliked, Lincoln said "He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know."

Over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain summed up the banking industry in a sentence that has even more cache in today's perilous economic climate: "A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain". And on another timeless subject, responding to a question: "What would men be without women? Scarce, sir, mighty scarce!"

The most brilliantly crafted blueprint ever conceived for governance of the affairs of a free people, our own U.S. Constitution, is four pages in it's original form. The current bill just to overhaul our health care is over 2,500 pages. The Declaration of Independence, consisting of only 1,337 words, was sufficient to set in motion events that established a great and free Nation; the 2010 IRS Tax Code, incomprehensible even in the highest reaches of our government, is 71,684 pages.

There is consistency at the core of each of these. In the best, the ideas are honed to brilliance by the words surrounding them. In the others, the ideas are lost in the underbrush of excessive words. So it is with writing. Every word adds value, every phrase has purpose. 19th century English poet Robert Southey perhaps said it best: "If you would be pungent, be brief, for it is with words as with sunbeams- the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn".....So where do you begin that new novel? I'd say begin as close to the end as you can, and work from there.

Comments 16 comments

Wil C profile image

Wil C 5 years ago from United States of America

Wow, I wish everyone understood this. Many times when people speak you know the end game. Yet they continue to pummel you into submission with their banalities. It's called sales.


grayghost profile image

grayghost 5 years ago Author

That's funny! And I think you're right on. Thanks for the comment.


SusieQ42 5 years ago

I agree, the fewer words the better...and silence is golden!


parrster profile image

parrster 5 years ago from Oz

And you practice what you preach, a well written and concise hub. Enjoyed the read.


grayghost profile image

grayghost 5 years ago Author

Thank you for commenting.


susieq42 5 years ago

Easier said than done!


grayghost profile image

grayghost 5 years ago Author

You're right on that! Thanks for the comment.


JaneA profile image

JaneA 5 years ago from California

Hmm, now I'm nervous (I better not be verbose here). Well done - some great history and great quotes.


grayghost profile image

grayghost 5 years ago Author

Thanks for reading, and for the kind words!


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Good Hub and excellent advice. Not sure if I fall into the long-winded category or not. As an academic we do write a lot and unfortunately there is the assumption that more is better. But you are right, that simply isn't so. Good work. :)


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

Oh to be rid of rambling! :)

Great reminder on the importance of the economy of words.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Exactly what Margaret Mitchell did! Interesting topic. Now I want to do a hub on this too. Imitation is the sincerest form of praise. Or is that the definition of plagarism? Voted up and Interesting!


grayghost profile image

grayghost 4 years ago Author

phdast: Thank you for reading and for your comments. I read your very interesting Hub profile. Thank you for what you do as a teacher! Your mention of your interest in Military history also intrigued me. My nephew and I have been researching my great grandfather, Patrick Flood, who spent 30 years (1866-1896) in the 3d U.S. Cavalry on the western frontier under generals Crook, Sheridan, and others and fought in numerous engagements in the Indian Wars, both on the Northern Plains and in the Southwest. We have some information acquired from the museum at Carlisle, but haven't made a visit. We need to put that on the agenda!


grayghost profile image

grayghost 4 years ago Author

RTalloni: Thank you for reading and for commenting. What I really need to do is work on my "economy of Hubs" (only 4 in 11 months). It is inspiring to hear from Hubbers like yourself who take the time not only to write, but to encourage others as well!


grayghost profile image

grayghost 4 years ago Author

Kathleen Cochran: Thank you for reading and commenting, and by all means, do! I would be interested in other thoughts on the subject. For myself, if something I am reading becomes to tedious, I may leave it, even when the topic interests me.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

grayghost - Good to hear from you. Carlisle Barracks is a great place to visit and conduct research. How wonderful that you have a partner (your nephew) in researching your great grandfather. I am sure you have a larger project in mind, but could you share some smaller segments of your research as Hubs? I think there would be some interest. :)

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