On this day in 1656, French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote a letter in which he expressed one of the central paradoxes of writing: it’s faster and easier to write a long composition than to write a short one.
Pascal expressed the paradox as an apology to his reader: “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter” (1).
According to Ralph Keyes in his book The Quote Verifier, Pascal’s quotation has been falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Voltaire (2). The popularity of Pascal’s sentiment reveals both how much writers value brevity and how difficult it can be to obtain. Being clear, concise, and cogent is hard work.
Another illustration of the “less is more” writing philosophy comes from an anecdote about Mark Twain, who received the following telegram from his publisher:
NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.
NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES
Perhaps the best explanation of the value of concision in writing is by William Strunk in Elements of Style. Instead of an anecdote, Strunk uses an analogy:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (3)
When you write, consider another analogy:
Imagine each word you write is an employee of the company you own. Each word needs a job to do. You can’t afford to pay a salary to words or employees who do nothing. Your job, therefore, as the writer is to keep your workforce — your “wordforce” — at a size no larger than what it takes to get the job done.
Today’s Challenge: Exactly 25 Words – No More, No Fewer
How would you summarize an article in just 25 words? One excellent way to practice revision and to practice economy in writing is to write 25-word summaries. Select an article of at least 200 words, and read it carefully to determine the writer’s main point. Then, write a brief summary that captures the main point in your own words. Don’t waste words saying things like: “This article is about . . .” or “The author argues that . . .” Instead, just state the article’s main ideas. Don’t worry about the number of words until you have finished your first draft. Next, count the number of words and revise as necessary to write a clear, concise, and correct summary of EXACTLY 25 words. Read your revised draft aloud to make sure that it is clear, that the sentences are complete, and that there are no wasted words. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
1-Pascal, Blaise. Letter XVI To the Reverend Fathers, the Jesuits. 4 Dec. 1656. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pascal/provincial.xviii.html.
2-Keyes, Ralph. The Quote Verifier. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006: 120.
3- Struck, William Elements of Style. York, PA: 1920. Public Domain. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/37134/37134-h/37134-h.htm.