Johnson: Style: Briefly | The Economist

Brilliant. I completely agree with his comment about ‘minimum-length’ papers in school.

Briefly

Aug 6th 2015, 17:09 BY R.L.G. | LONDON

EVERYONE knows that texting and tweeting are ruining the kids’ writing.

Or are they? Getting things into 140 characters might be teaching young writers one of the most cherished virtues among those who deal professionally with writing: brevity. Johnson has just changed jobs, from reporting to editing. Before, copy went from my hands to another’s, and it was their job to query, reshape and trim it—difficult work that inevitably made it better. Now I am on the other end of the exchange, and much of my first week was spent merely making pieces shorter.

Editing for print means not only making sure a piece is interesting and accurate, but also meeting a space-limit tightly defined by the size of a page. Online, when an editor asks for 650 words and a writer sends 1,100, the result is a groan.  When this happens in print with a deadline looming, the result is panic. The piece simply must fit.

And yet trimming prose from experienced writers can still be surprisingly easy. When this week I received a piece very late in our schedule, it was almost twice as long as requested. In alarm, I began cutting every word that did not need to be there as fast as possible. I was surprised to find that even though the original was hardly bloated, 250 words of the needed 400 in cuts came easily. (The rest, substantive cuts, were much more painful.)

Why do people write more than they should, when most people find writing difficult? This may be because during their education, young writers are given a kind of assignment that may do lasting harm: they are told to write papers to minimum lengths. Most rookie writers do not have enough to say to fill the space easily, so they reach into a bag of terrible tricks: needless information, repetition, using long words where a short ones will do, three words where one will do, and so on. These habits persist.

Why do more teachers not, instead, give students an appreciation for brevity? William Strunk, one of the authors of the American usage guide “Elements of Style”, was said by his student (and later editor) E.B. White to grip the lectern in his writing class and say “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”  Similarly, George Orwell wrote “If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.” The “Unnecessary words” entry in our own style guide notes that strike action, cutbacks, track records, policy-making processes, and weather conditions are terser and better as strikes, cuts, records, policymaking and weather. No reputable style manual will ever tell writers to write more.

A rule should not, of course, become a compulsion. Strunk did not need to say “Omit needless words!” three times, but it is more memorable that way. Orwell could have cut “out” twice in his own rule, but it then goes from forceful to blunt. And anyone snipping every needless word from our style guide would turn its attempts at gentle humour into relentless hectoring.

Nonetheless, brevity should be the rule, not the exception for non-fiction meant to grab and keep a busy reader’s attention. In taking sauce for the gander, I have gone back over this column and tried to remove every word that added nothing but length. The resulting quick cut was about 7% of the word-count, and it hardly hurt at all.

As for teachers, try the following trick: assign students a paper of ten pages, and then tell them the real assignment is to trim it back to five in class, with the clock ticking. The resulting skill will, in its usefulness, far outlast anything they might learn about symbolism in Tolstoy or the causes of the Reformation. Then send the student who completes the assignment fastest to our internships page.

via Johnson: Style: Briefly | The Economist.

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