Normally I wouldn’t dream of going public with thoughts on writing in general. A vast number of people have busied themselves with that topic, so there’s no chance of my having anything novel to say. I regularly give thanks to the gods of writing that I’ve been given the near-virgin territory of contract drafting to explore.
But I’ll tell you how I spent my time yesterday morning.
I’ve been reviewing the page proofs of MSCD2; in a few more days it should be ready to go to the printers. Yesterday I noticed that I hadn’t included in the manuscript a sub-topic that I’d discussed in a three-paragraph blog item. The MSCD2 manuscript did, however, devote a single paragraph to a related topic. What to do?
I consulted the related MSCD2 paragraph and the blog item, then spent a total of about three hours, off and on, whittling down the MSCD2 paragraph by two-thirds, then distilling my blog item down to two sentences. I achieved my goal—shoehorning into the page proofs a discussion of the missing topic without dreaded “reflow.” (That’s when you change the number of lines on a page and thereby incur the costs and delays associated with repaginating all subsequent pages in that chapter.)
So what? Well, when it comes to expository prose—prose that seeks to explain stuff—my favorite attribute is concision. But prose tends to expand, like gas, to fit the available space. Unless you’re particularly disciplined, anyone looking to write concise prose would benefit from some some sort of external motivator, such as a skilled editor.
In this case, the motivation was severe self-inflicted space constraints. I was forced to search for the essence of what I was trying to say and the most economical way of saying it, and I ended up stripping out a good deal of padding. If someone were to invite me to revisit the passage in question without worrying about reflow, I’d tell them that I’m happy with it as it is.
That’s not to say that I could apply that lesson to all of MSCD2 and end up with a book that’s 200 pages shorter. I’ve been working over much of the book for a few years, so I’ve already had occasion to pare away a lot of fat.
The main benefit of this exercise is that I was reminded, once again, that even if you think you’re writing concise prose, it’s amazing what you can discard when your feet are held to the fire.
9 thoughts on “Degrees of Concision: A Note on Writing in General”
I can take any of my past contracts–even ones I’ve heavily pruned in the past–and invariably find ways to trim them by at least 10%. Unfortunately, as you note, concision does take time. Eric.
The most helpful writing exercise that I had in law school was in Trusts and Estates. The professor required us to write papers on several topics in the course. Each paper could be no longer than one double-spaced page with minimum margin measurements and type size. We students learned (or should have learned) to identify the pivotal issues and analyze them concisely. We didn’t have to waste a lot of time researching or writing. The professor didn’t have to waste a lot of time reading bloated student prose. It was very effective and efficient.
You’re going to post an announcement and link when MSCD2 is available for purchase, right?
Ken, I have a similar story I like to tell. It was the spring of 1977, several years before the personal computer changed the meaning of the words “cut and paste.” My third year of law school was drawing to a close. I had just finished typing my third year paper and was sitting on my bed reading my 90 page manuscript one last time. Midway through the paper, I came to a section that I felt missed an important point.
While pondering what to do, I reached for my glass of ice tea, knocking it over directly onto my paper. Fortunately, I reacted quickly and only three pages on the top of the pile in front of me were damaged. I took that as an opportunity to edit those three pages down to two and a half pages so that I could insert the concept I wanted to add.
I am sure that professional editors know that writers tend to throw in words that don’t carry their weight, but I was surprised that my paragraphs sounded better after the drastic surgery.
A student once remarked to his professor,”I understand this , but I just cannot draft it.” to which the professor sagely replied “If you cannot draft it then you do not understand it!”
Draft whatever you want, go to sleep, tear it up and write a second time.The second version will always be half the size and twice as clear.
FE Smith the great English barrister was asked for his written opinion for the board of directors on a pile of paper six feet high which he had never seen before. The problem was he only had twelve hours to deliver it.He delivered the following opinion after eleven hours.”Gentlemen, you will win and the damages will be vast”The board were entirely satisfied.
Rumor has it that Winston Churchill once apologized for the length of a memo he wrote by saying something like, “I am sorry this is so long; I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.” If you want a great example of prose that is elegantly concise, pick up the first volume of Churchill’s six volume set “The Second World War” and just start reading. He later won the Nobel prize – in literature! (There has also been an entire – and thoroughly engaging – book recently written about the writing of the The Second World War.)
This reminds me of the old saying “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
The quotation mentioned by the last two posters was apparently made by George Bernard Shaw. That doesn’t mean that Churchill didn’t repeat it.
To respond to Ken’s post, and Eric’s comment that concision takes time-
I have heard this quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: “I worked on one of my poems all morning, and I took out a comma. In the afternoon, I put it back in.”