Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Concision

Concreteness, compactness, concision--put it any way you like--is something that good writing is based on. Or you may call it, as Jacques Barzun did in the title and content of an important book, “Simple and Direct,” which comes pretty much to the same thing. I myself have always been astonished at an overstuffed sentence and inscrutable paragraph, wondering about how many respectable authors can lack clarity and require poring over a certain piece of their writing, sometimes in vain..

There are of course subjects that are beyond the comprehension of the general reader (though not as many as one might think), but I am concerned with matters that could be made perfectly clear, but egregiously aren’t.

To be sure, there have been great writers to whom long and complicated sentences came naturally—one thinks of Proust and Henry James, for example—and who could get away with it. Yet that is mostly in fiction, whereas I am thinking chiefly of exposition.

But not exclusively.  Even in verse, for instance, how powerful through its brevity is William Norman Ewer’s poem running thus in its entirety: “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/The Jews.” I am, of course, not advocating that all poems should be four lines of monometer, but merely instancing a salient example of what concision can do.

Everyone concedes that concision is mandatory in the witty retort. Famously, when the Earl of Sandwich said to John Wilkes, “’Pon my honor, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox,” Wilkes replied, “That must depend, my Lord, upon whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.” This could be even more compact without the “must” or the plural “mistresses,” but much depends precisely on a mere two extra syllables to make the answer that much stronger.

 That kind of economy--mandatory in the retort, aphorism or epigram--can be just as effective in various kinds of writing. While we are at it, isn’t it interesting that under he entry “Concision,” the Heritage Dictionary offers a bit from, of all people, Henry James: “the quick, direct discrimination of this eye, which explains the vivid concision of his descriptions.”

Even the fact that we have such synonyms or near-synonyms as concise, terse, pregnant, testifies to the importance of the matter. Here let me recall the most famous historic instance of concision, Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vinci,” which echoes down the centuries undiminished in stature. And it behooves us to remember that Caesar was, among other things, quite a writer. By the way, in that verbal triangulation, while “I came” and “I conquered” are potent enough, it is the “I saw” that is the most unexpected, most striking, and most suggestive of all.

The next most famous piece of historic concision is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, whose terseness stood out even more powerfully coming after Everett’s lengthy oration. Granted, concision is not easy. Recall Woodrow Wilson’s “If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

The opposite of “concise” is, of course, “verbose,” and we know, or ought to know, how insulting that is when judiciously applied. It was of David Copperield that Robert Graves pointed out that, just by cutting every “little,” it could be made, I forget exactly how many pages shorter. That was a reflection mostly on Dickens’s sentimentality, but, indirectly, also on his wordiness. And for lack of concision in speech, we have terms like garrulity, loquacity, talkativeness and, if you look up the last-named in the dictionary, a bunch of other synonyms. Needless to say, what is offensive in speech is just as culpable in writing, probably even more so.

Admittedly, there are some specious excuses, such as your writing being paid by the word inducing you to become wordier. But that is surely a shabby excuse, even granting that in our culture, or lack thereof, writing can be shamelessly underpaid. The sound of one’s own voice, whether in talk or in writing, makes for a poor love object, as even unsophisticated hearers or readers will readily concede. Absolved only is dramatic effect, as when in “King Lear” the word “kill” or the word “never” is repeated several times; extreme rage and extreme grief are accorded the privilege of such iteration, on the stage as in life.

In any case, repetition is not the same as prolixity. The former will make you boring, but it is the latter that makes you inept. There are further possible reasons for verbosity. Greed, flattery, evasiveness, mendacity and other undesirables come to mind. To return to “King Lear,” it is the unloving daughters that are wordmongers; the loving daughter is wonderfully concise.

 I forget who it was that summarized the play as “a man has three daughters, which proves sufficient to drive him insane.” That kind of concisions—except when, as here, as a joke—is manifestly undesirable. And for comic purposes, verbosity can be immensely effective. Think of Polonius or, better yet, of Cyrano in the monologue of the nose. Conversely, though, there is the line in a play that—quite undeservedly—always gets a laugh. It is when, after some long, rambling speech by one character, another replies with “No shit?” Although the terseness there is reinforced by scatology, I consider it no laughing matter.

But there is also love. Lovers are traditionally allowed, or even expected, to give vent to their emotions in a flow, even torrent, of impassioned words. Here eloquence, rhetoric, hyperbole, and all kinds of high-flown comparisons tend to be pardoned, whether in writing, utterance, or artful susurration. All this, however, only for the beloved person’s eye or ear; everyone else’s stomach might be justified in turning.

But I must stop before readers of this blog post accuse me of lack if concision.


  1. A university creative writing class was asked to write a concise essay containing the following elements:

    1. Religion
    2. Royalty
    3. Sex
    4. Mystery

    The prize-winning essay read:

    'My God," said the Queen, "I'm pregnant. I wonder who did it!"

  2. “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/The Jews.”

    "The goyim/ Annoy Him."

  3. I like this six word explanation a woman gave for why she loved a man:

    "He saw the me I didn't."

  4. There's a guy who always forgets which is which. He confuses tables for chairs, TV for radios, cats for dogs.
    One day, he goes to his girlfriend's place to get some action. But looking at the two orifices, he can't remember which is the vagina, which is the anus. And he's afraid to ask since he'll sound stupid. So, ini-mini-miney-mo, he sticks it into one of the holes.
    There's a loud barking of a dog and a woman runs out of the kitchen and screams, "why are you screwing my dog in the ass?"
    So, the guy says, "Oh, so you're the girlfriend and this is the dog?"