This is a speech I delivered in Grammar for Teachers. The subject is an anonymous high-school student who submitted 68 rather generic words after a full class period of free writing. After showing us the writing sample my professor asked, “How do I motivate this student?” The following is my attempt to answer.
This award is for the anonymous young man with the shortest writing response. The academic world will often grade you on the length of your writing and in the process make it appear that your path to success is fluff, not substance. Do not despair. Take the long view. Eventually people will value your words for their quality, not their quantity.
Professional writers often say that if you can form a complete sentence, you can write. It is clear that you pass this standard. Word count is all but meaningless. In the long run, ideas are king and this is where you have the most room to improve.
You do not like Vancouver but do not say why, beyond a vague claim that our city is boring. Vancouver started with an idea that became goals, then a fur trading post, then a city. This progression appears in everything else. What do an xBox, your favorite music, or that pretty girl have in common? Each started with an idea.
It’s not the size of a word, it’s how you use it. And the same is true for sentences, paragraphs, and whole papers. Professional writing guides repeatedly make the point that people are busy and often will not read more than the first page of anything you give them. So be concise, be clear, but above all, be relevant.
Brevity is not just the soul of wit, it is also the path to remembrance. Abraham Lincoln used 278 words to deliver the Gettysburg Address. We still remember these few great words because they were concise, emotional, and oh so relevant. Lincoln was not the only speaker that day but you’ll need a history book to find out who else was there.
In order to duplicate this, you must master your own voice. Every writer has a million bad words in them and in order to reach the good words underneath, you must shovel the bad ones out of the way. If a little voice in the back of your mind just groaned, you’re catching on. The only way to trim the verbal fat is practice. Spew your thoughts onto the page, then cut the ones that don’t matter.
Left in the mind, an idea is useless. It sits, at best a private amusement, but its destiny is to be forgotten. An idea on the page is the beginning of power, where it can enlighten, inspire, and incite. You may have the most brilliant notion in all of earth’s history, but until you share it, it has no value.
While you are to be commended in your quest for brevity, you are not yet an expert. The true masters of this art spent time honing it. They sat around tables together, somewhat like your lunch room, drinking black broth and competing for the pithiest phrase. We remember them like this.
After conquering most of Greece, Philip II of Macedon sent a message to Sparta, saying, “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever.” The Spartan reply: “If.” This single word, remembered long after its time, encapsulates emotion, relevance, and some very tight editing.
Word count is meaningless. Ideas are king. Let them control the pen, and word count fall where it may. You can write, I can can see it. Now show us some ideas. Make your words count.
The Concision Award by Mark VanTassel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
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