Brevity (noun) – shortness of duration, especially shortness or conciseness of expression.
At school, comments on my conciseness were a regular feature of my school reports. I was never sure whether it was a good or a bad thing. Certainly, when further exploration and exposition were required, my natural tendency to bullet point, summarise and cut through to the basic principles didn’t help my grades.
But I’ve come to realise that there’s a real power in brevity, used appropriately. One of the most famous – and impactful – verses in the Bible is the shortest: “Jesus wept.”
Advertising and brand slogans – the ones that really stay with you – are models of succinct writing:
Just Do It.
Beanz Meanz Heinz.
There are no extraneous words here, but then the words don’t mean the same on their own: they derive their meaning from the effectiveness of the campaign surrounding them and then eventually pass into the cultural lexicon.
George Orwell’s third rule of writing (of the six rules outlined in his essay Politics and the English Language) is “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” While Stephen King, in On Writing, also exhorts the writer to cut unnecessary words, revise long phrases and generally get rid of anything that isn’t essential to the story. (You can read an excellent post about Stephen King’s top 13 writing tips at The Writing Cooperative on Medium.)
So, what we’re looking for is KISS – that’s keep it short and simple – or the slightly less polite, keep it simple, stupid.
This is particularly important in non-fiction informative or instructional material – such as public health advice or information on benefits, instruction manuals or conference agendas. Keeping things short and simple helps to convey a clear message as well as harnessing short attention spans. (For more information about writing clearly and concisely for the public, see Rhiannon’s blog on clear English.)
When editing, I’ll often make suggestions to cut words and rework certain phrases. It’s most helpful if writers are able to be as ruthless as possible before their work is edited, but this is often where the editor comes into their own as they are sometimes (not always!) better able to “kill the darlings” and make a piece really clear and focused.
In practice, aiming to KISS could include:
- watching your sentence length – a good rule of thumb is to look again at any sentence that’s longer than 20 words
- keeping sentence structure simple and direct – for example, by avoiding using lots of sub-clauses
- avoiding jargon and technical language – if it’s necessary for your material then make sure you define it, unless you’re absolutely certain that all your readers will understand what you mean
- using headings, sub-headings, lists, bullet points, tables and graphs – to help the reader navigate the text easily
- speaking in the active voice.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash