Learning Written Brevity
July 16, 2022 1:22 PM   Subscribe

At my prior position, one frequent criticism was being too wordy in written form. Are there are any good e-courses or books out there for learning brevity? While personal advice welcomed, looking more for e-courses or books.

(Having word wrap at 11-12 pt in a 1/3-screen message preview, it's hard to make anything look brief, but nonetheless ... )
posted by MollyRealized to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
You might try books on copyediting—thems the people that take a 500-page tome and turn it into a 200-page novel.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 1:27 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]

Garner’s Modern American Usage is wonderful for this. I have had a copy on my desk for over a decade and it is well-thumbed.
posted by minervous at 1:31 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]

I have also had that criticism! Plain Language helped me learn how to write without excessive flourish.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:39 PM on July 16 [6 favorites]

One exercise I had my students do (they hated it while doing it, but retrospectively said that it was incredibly valuable):

Write a news article at 1200 words. Word limit is a hard cutoff and inflexible. Turn it in.

Then... cut to 600. Turn it in.

Then... cut to 300. Turn it in.

Then... 150. Turn it in.

Then 75. Turn it in.

By doing this, you force yourself to see what's really necessary -- and where you stop cutting fat and start cutting muscle and bone. You're forced to triage your ideas and figure out what you're willing to give up and when.

Try doing this with one of your own works... or even with, say, a longer article in a newspaper.

Once you've gotten it, try doing a reduction pass after a draft -- cutting even 10% could make a big difference.
posted by cgs06 at 2:07 PM on July 16 [16 favorites]

It hasn't been published yet, but Smart Brevity, from some of the people who founded Axios, might be promising.
posted by box at 2:09 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

It sometimes gets a bad rap at MeFi, but I remain a fan of The Elements of Style, often referred to after its authors, Strunk and White. It's a great book for learning to make every word count without sounding like you're sending a telegram.

On preview, cgs06's writing exercise would be excellent practice.
posted by bryon at 2:09 PM on July 16 [5 favorites]

I've been on twitter a while now, and the character limit has really sharpened up my ability to craft short drawing labels, huge difference.
posted by unearthed at 2:35 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]

Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams
posted by brainwane at 4:09 PM on July 16

Apps like Hemingway might help, especially if you also write meandering sentences.
posted by pinochiette at 4:43 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]

On Writing Well by William Zinsser is an excellent book on clear, clean nonfiction writing techniques.
posted by heatherlogan at 4:59 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]

I don’t know, but I did want to chime in with something that I learned from an Pilates teacher when I was getting certified in teaching. She said, say what you mean in as few words as possible. It’s hard at first, but you can cut to the quick with as little filler as possible if you practice it enough.
posted by Champagne Supernova at 9:24 PM on July 16

Write to word limits repeatedly. I was taught the inverted pyramid where you can cut backwards to hit a necessary word count.

I write way too wordy. At work, I write emails, switch to anther task, then return to rewrite the email shorter and clearer. I use a lot of bullet points, subtitles and color-highlight key words.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:51 PM on July 16

If being "too wordy" means using too many ten-dollar words then the Globish scanner can help pfffffff your pretensions and make what you write more widely accessible.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:42 PM on July 16

I liked this book a lot: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs. You can check out the author's blog to get an idea if this might be helpful for you.
posted by loop at 11:52 PM on July 16

Great recommendations above.

You might try Richard Lanham's paramedic method.

Other books you might track down:

How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark
Do I Make Myself Clear? by Harold Evans
Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun
The Classic Guide to Better Writing by Rudolf Flesch and A.H. Lass

Hopefully something in there speaks to you.
posted by xenization at 8:02 AM on July 17

I hate to say it but …. Twitter!

Also if you can find a good writing instructor or class, there’s nothing like getting feedback directly on your own work to see where you can tighten things up. I had a great colleague who showed me (in just one document) that I tend to state the same thing in two different ways.
posted by haptic_avenger at 8:10 AM on July 17

The Complete Plain Words by Ernest Gowers is a fun read that might help.

A passage I like:
Why do so many writers prefer pudder to simplicity? It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay (its genuineness is guaranteed) on a bird and a beast:

"The bird that I am going to write about is the Owl. The Owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.

"I do not know much about the Owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the Cow. The Cow is a mammal. It has six sides - right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere. The horns are to butt with, and the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country.

"The man cow is called an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not eat much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass".

The writer had something to say and said it as clearly as he could, and so has unconsciously achieved style. But why do we write, when we are ten, "so that the mouth can be somewhere" and perhaps when we are thirty "in order to ensure that the mouth may be appropriately positioned environmentally"? What barnacular song do the puddering sirens sing to lure the writer into the land of Jargantua? That, as we know, is the sort of question which, though puzzling, is not beyond all conjecture. I will hazard one or two.
posted by Caxton1476 at 12:59 PM on July 19

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