Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar: you are listening to a speech or presentation, or perhaps you are reading an article, an essay, or a report, and it becomes clear that the writer is using words without communicating. Some essays, articles, and books might be pleasant to read because the language is colorful, and a speaker might make pleasant, sincere-sounding noises. No doubt some of your my writing or speaking can be described this way. If you don’t think yours can, just wait. As you improve, you will expect more of yourself. One way to improve is to practice writing with word or character limits.
This matters in the idea-driven economy. Consider George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Words mean something. Words are important. Orwell argues that language should be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” Much could be accomplished with better writing, and yet quantitative social scientists, for example, try to earn status by one-upping one another with technical and mathematical sophistication. Humanists try to out-jargon one another. Important ideas are obscured by the impenetrable clouds of unclarity.
What can you do about it? Try writing with hard word limits. Give yourself a lower word limit than you might find comfortable. Allow yourself to write a rough draft that is as long as you want it to be. Then, when you’re editing, try to cut it down below the maximum word count. If you’re writing a 10,000 word article, try to cut it to 9,000 words. If you’re writing an 800-word op-ed, aim for 700 words. Trim an essay with a 1500 word limit to 1200 words.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, your readers’ time is valuable. Second, it forces you to confront trade offs in every sentence. If you’re trying to trim a 1500 word essay into a 1200 word essay, you have to ask yourself at every juncture whether you can make the point with fewer words. You will be shocked at how much you can tighten your prose without losing anything. Indeed, tighter, punchier prose will improve the quality of your exposition.
An exercise might help. Consider that last sentence: “Indeed, tighter, punchier prose will improve the quality of your exposition.” I wrote it on a plane from Omaha to Memphis while my brain was toast, and it shows.
Let’s improve it. First, drop “Indeed” because it adds nothing. “(I)mprove the quality of your exposition” is a long way of saying “make you write better.” So let’s try some revisions:
“Tighter, punchier prose improves your writing.” (better)
“Tighter, punchier prose makes you write better.” (awkward and clunky—it sounds like a lesson plan for the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Want to Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too)
Perhaps this: “Punchy prose makes good writing.”
There’s no objective right answer. You have to play around with it, but as the cliché says, easy writing makes for hard reading.
You might also want to experiment with character and syllable limits. Orwell said to avoid using big words. In the sentence we were critiquing above, “exposition” was a clunky, four-syllable way of saying “writing.” Always use the easier word.
To write well requires dedicated effort. I don’t claim to have mastered it. Approach it like topiary. Or bonsai gardening. Or sculpture. Or painting. Or whatever. As a writer, you are a skilled artisan. Words are your medium, and you use hem to communicate information, evoke passions, and stir the consciences of your readers. Get to work. Change the world. And take heart: you’re always improving.
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