Degrees of Concision: A Note on Writing in General

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.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.