80. About Writing: Brevity

Shakespeare once wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

For those of us who don’t speak Shakespearean, what he meant was, “Good writing is brief.” The mark of a good writer is to express something clearly in as few words as possible. Too many words burden a piece of writing.

I didn’t really understand this until I began working on The Infinity Manuscript. Each part of the story, I decided, must not exceed two thousand words. This gave me only two thousand words in each part of the story to set the scene, introduce new characters, develop existing characters and progress the plot, and to do all these things in a way that didn’t feel rushed.

I’ve exceeded the two-thousand-word limit in the first draft of almost every part of the story so far, sometimes by as much as one or two hundred words. It was discouraging at first. However, when I went back and removed whatever dialogue and descriptions weren’t absolutely necessary, I realized the story was actually improved by these omissions. No longer slowed by unnecessary descriptions and wandering dialogue, the story moved along at a quicker pace.

When I began writing long ago, I believed more was better. Long descriptions gave readers a more vivid impression of each scene, and abundant dialogue helped establish characters more clearly, or so I thought.

The problem is that rambling dialogues and longwinded descriptions tend to be vague and pointless.

Anton Chekhov stated that if a gun is hung on the wall of a stage during a play, it should be fired by the end of the final act. In other words, the stage shouldn’t be cluttered with unnecessary props. Every prop should contribute something to the play.

In the same way, every element of a story should have a purpose. Every dialogue and description should develop the characters, explore the setting, move the plot or contribute to the story in some other way. If an element of the story has no purpose, it should probably be cut.

Smaller cuts can often be made as well. Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly. Descriptive words lose their impact if they’re used too often.

Take a wordy sentence: “Adam paused suddenly in the middle of a wordy paragraph to sip thoughtfully from a steaming cup of jasmine tea and gaze reflectively out the large window at the green trees swaying ponderously in the strong breeze.”

Awful, right? Let’s cut out those awkward descriptive words: “Adam paused in the middle of a paragraph to sip from a cup of tea and gaze out the window at the trees swaying in the breeze.” The shortened sentence conveys pretty much the same scene without all those cumbersome adverbs and adjectives.

I conclude with a story.

While dining with several other writers, Earnest Hemingway, an author whose brevity is legendary, bet them he could write a compelling story in only six words. They accepted his bet. Hemingway took out a pen and wrote the following words on a napkin.

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

He won the bet.

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