Blog by JourneyGroup

The Case for Brevity

I spent two years in a graduate program studying writing, which meant I spent even more time reading—everything from 500-page novels to cereal boxes to soft drink ad campaigns. I began to recognize when I started to skim and what kept me hooked. One of my goals as Journey's content director is to make sure readers—no matter what the topic or platform—stay hooked. And that's most often done well with far fewer words.

Brevity takes time. And a ruthless pursuit of the essence of the thing you're trying to say. Berkley professor Tania Lombrozo (1) talks about the academic journals in her field requiring tweet-like highlights along with submissions. Last year journalist Peter Roy Clark wrote How to Write Short because "in the digital age, short writing is king. We need more good short writing — the kind that makes us stop, read, and think — in an accelerating world. A time-starved culture bloated with information hungers for the lean, clean, simple, and direct. Such is our appetite for short writing that not only do our long stories seem too long, but our short stories feel too long as well." (2)

But trendiness isn't the sole reason you should consider brevity. After all, Shakespeare penned "brevity is the soul of wit" in Hamlet years ago.

There's a case for brevity in our written communication simply because it makes us clearer, stronger and more poignant. It forces us to know what we want to say. And it honors our readers' time.

Here's how I approach brevity in my work:

1.    I don't start with it. Sometimes you have to get it all out before you can see what's most important about what you're trying to communicate, where the heart of the idea is. So even if brevity is your end goal, let yourself use lots of words at first.

2.    I ask myself hard questions and make myself answer them. Like, is that sentence really needed or is it just fluff? Can I combine those two ideas?

3.    Editors, god bless 'em. If you don't have any in your life, get some. These people love to tighten, tighten, tighten. Formally and informally, my colleagues read my assignments and help me narrow long-winded thoughts and ideas.

4.    Make imaginary non-friends. I imagine someone who doesn't know me (or the client I may be writing for) stumbling across the message. Would they linger? Be curious? If not, it's back to the drawing board.

5.    I'm willing to walk away from my darlings. Journey's design director Mike Ryan shared about this a little, but those verbal darlings, clever structures or end-of-sentence tricks that I think are so brilliant, sometimes have to be released.

"I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." That's Blaise Pascal writing in 1657 (3). This brevity thing may be our longest-running trend yet.