All writers do it from time to time. We fall in love with our own words. Just as there are those who are – derisively – referred to as loving the sound of their own voice, there are those who love the sight of their own words on a page or a screen.
And unfortunately, all of us sometimes think that if our words are worth reading, then more must be better. This is completely understandable in a first draft or in stream-of-consciousness writing (James Joyce’s, Ulysses, for example). Thoughts come into our heads in a tumble and just have to make their way onto the page. But such ramblings are often unfit for public consumption. (I can barely make sense of my own first drafts!) And this is where editors are our best friends. A second set of eyes will very often cut through all the fluff to get to the nugget of the message, paring down all the excess so that only the vital heart remains. Of course, we can perform this function ourselves, but a more objective viewpoint is usually best. Someone else will be less attached to the language and more likely to discern what is and isn’t necessary.
This dilemma of wordiness is much more dangerous today than in years past. Teachers and style manuals have long preached the gospel of concise writing, but the issue has become self-evident in the digital age. Society has developed a 140-character attention span, and woe to the writer who goes on to a second page or a second screen. Madison Avenue, however, has been on to this concept for decades. Corporations and advertisers alike strive to capture the feeling and essence of their products or companies. Who can forget these?
- “What’s in your wallet?” (Capital One)
- “What can brown do for you?” (UPS)
- “Just do it!” (Nike)
- “Think.” (IBM, with the shortest possible slogan!)
Perhaps the oldest – or at least the most famous – admonition dates back to Shakespeare, where Polonius opines:
Since brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief…
(Hamlet, Act II).
Of course the irony is that Polonius is notoriously verbose!
The takeaway, then, is that we always need to write with a sense of economy. The flowery language so much in vogue a few hundred years ago has given way to a more compact style. Readers won’t put up with long-winded writing, nor should they. Using more efficient language is always preferable to cluttering up our prose with more and more modifiers. You or an editor should always be looking for ways to trim the fat. Tight, concise language will always have a greater impact.
I could go on, but . . . well, you know.
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