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Editorial: Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Editorial: Brevity is the Soul of Wit

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“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo

In addition to the hundreds of emails I send each week, I also write dozens of articles for the CEE Legal Matters website, as well as a significant amount of the content in every issue of this magazine. I also review/edit/revise the dozens of interviews, Expert Review articles, Market Snapshots, and other content produced by other writers in each issue of the magazine. You may not be surprised to hear that writing is on my mind a lot.

It seems so easy, doesn’t it? Just put your thoughts on a page. A few thousand keystrokes, and –hey presto! – a fascinating article, an insightful editorial, a penetrating analysis. 

If only.

Those of us who write for a living can only laugh at the memory of our early school days, when the assignment of a mere 200-word essay was a familiar source of mental stress. Finding those 200 words seemed virtually impossible. Inevitably, the placement of those last fifteen words resembled the final steps of a runner stumbling towards the finish line of his first marathon: Slow, awkward, and as painful to watch as to perform. 

Now, in our adulthood, we deal with the opposite agony. How to hit word limits. How to narrow our thousands of words down into their most pointed, most effective, purest form. How to satisfy editors, maintain the interest of readers, and most effectively persuade our audience. 

It’s a painful process, for me as for everyone else. For just as we impose word limits on the lawyers who contribute articles to this (and every) issue of the CEE Legal Matters magazine, our Managing Editor imposes similar restrictions on me as he carries out his formatting responsibilities. Being faced with a firm instruction to cut another 100 or 200 words (or sometimes 500 words) from whatever masterpiece I’ve prepared for a particular issue is, by now, a familiar agony.

Still, I know (and encourage others to remember) that, in fact, the end result is inevitably – inevitably – better. Keeping articles, essays, editorials, briefs, and memos short forces clarity and focus upon us. Brevity keeps the reader engaged, and forces discipline upon the author. Think about that Michelangelo quote. 

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” – Mark Twain

But as in all things, Mark Twain said it better than I can. So allow me to present several of his comments on the importance of brevity in writing, in the hope that we all can take encouragement from them. 

  • “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”
  • “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself …. Anybody can have ideas. The difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”
  • “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
  • “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.”
  • “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
  • “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

It’s worth emphasizing that we appreciate all the effort made by the authors of articles and editorials in this and every issue of our magazine – and I hope they forgive what must sometimes seem to be arbitrary flourishes of my red pen. But by cutting I cure. The goal, after all, is to find that angel in the marble and set her free.

Oh yes. The original draft of this editorial was 1200 words.

This Article was originally published in Issue 4.6 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.