At breakfast the other day, somebody commented that my friend Pete* had lost some weight.
“I’m always losing weight,” said Pete.
There was much merry-making at Pete’s expense as everybody envisioned him always losing weight—less Pete and less Pete until he finally disappeared.
“You know what I mean,” said Pete. But we didn’t.
“I mean I’m always trying to lose weight,” he said. “I was being concise.”
More laughter at Pete’s expense. Because that’s not what concise means.
On the subject of concision, Strunk and/or White wrote,
A sentence should have 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.”
The word I want you to pay attention to is “unnecessary.” Concise writing and speaking is not merely a matter of using fewer words. Concision is about getting the most (and the most precise) meaning and leaving it at that, without extra words.
Let us return to Pete’s efforts at reduction:
Sentence A: I am always trying to lose weight.
Sentence B: I am always losing weight.
Sentence B is two words shorter than Sentence A. But it’s not more concise: the missing words are necessary to the meaning of the sentence. The omission of two words changes the sentence from merely exaggerated to impossible and ludicrous. That’s a high price to pay for a 29% savings on word count.
Or consider these two sentences:
Sentence A: I am always trying to lose weight.
Sentence C: I am trying to lose weight.
Sentence C is one word shorter than Sentence A (a 14% savings!). It also has the virtue of being more likely to be true. “I am always trying to lose weight” is almost certainly an exaggeration. On the other hand, if a person says “I am trying to lose weight,” one is inclined to take that statement at face value—unless, say, he is making this declaration while eating breakfast at the Waffle House.
Sentence C is shorter and truer. So is it more concise? Well, no. “I am always trying to lose weight” may be an exaggeration, but that “always” gives us a little glimpse of what it is like to be Pete. That one word does a lot of work.
Encouraging their students to be concise, writing teachers sometimes say, ‘Think of your words as expensive. You don’t want to waste them.” I agree that you don’t want to waste words. But instead of thinking of words as something you spend, I prefer to think of them as something you invest. You’re looking for return on investment. Words that don’t add meaning need to go. But if five extra words make your sentence significantly more meaningful, add those words.
When I teach concision, sometimes I use a sheet from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. An example from that sheet illustrates what I mean about cutting away words that don’t add meaning:
The teacher demonstrated some of the various ways and methods for cutting words from my essay that I had written for class. (22 words)
The teacher demonstrated methods for cutting words from my essay. (10 words)
In the concise version, we’ve cut twelve words without losing any meaning. That’s what you’re looking for in concise writing—a higher meaning-to-word-count ratio.
You may have noticed that I keep talking about “meaning,” not “information” or “facts.” When you make meaning with words, you aren’t just conveying information. You are also rendering experience: “Here are some facts, and here’s what it is like to experience those facts.”
An earlier version of the aforementioned Purdue OWL sheet offered this pairing:
After booking a ticket to Dallas from a travel agent, I packed my bags and arranged for a taxi to the airport. Once there I checked in, went through security, and was ready to board, but problems beyond my control led to a three-hour delay before takeoff. (42 words)
My flight to Dallas was delayed by three hours. (9 words)
The first passage obviously has more words than the second passage. But is it wordier? It might be a tad wordy; I’m not sure the first clause—up to the first comma—is necessary. But the first passage isn’t four times wordier than the second, as the word counts suggest.
The first passage gives a sense of what the writer’s travel day was like. It takes a good many words to depict that much experience. Whoever abridged the passage down to nine words achieved such brevity by cutting out all the experience and most of the information. They could have achieved even more brevity, I suppose, by not writing a sentence at all.
You’re not hoarding your words. You’re investing them to make meaning. And as investors often say, you’ve got to spend money to make money.
- Not his real name. His real name is Arthur.
** By the same logic, anyone who knows Pete might say the original utterance, “I am always losing weight,” gives an even better glimpse of what it’s like to be Pete. True enough. But it seems to me that the utter Pete-iness of this utterance comes out accidentally. I don’t know how to give advice on being accidentally revealing in your language.