- Books, Literature, and Writing»
- Commercial & Creative Writing
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.
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.