Not so concise writing: OK?



I (can always) hope you read my recent post about concise writing. I thought I would add some qualifiers to my own post.

In school, the Jesuits taught me that the best writing is bare-bone writing. If you can say something in 12 words, don’t go for 13. Preferably, strip it down to 11.

Students were also told to avoid being magniloquent. Sorry, I meant bombastic. Well, wordy, if you’d rather. Our English teachers jackhammered these lessons into us; any deviation off the narrow and straight, and our grades suffered.

Is concise writing an inviolable concept?

No. Much depends, of course, on what your interpretation of “concise” is. Now that I am one decade of celebration and almost three decades of regret away from school, I have learned to sex up concise writing with some originality of thought. I think authors should take a bit of license. No too much, just a little bit: enough to be alluring, like a half-imagined glimpse of cleavage or thigh.

Some words act like a booster shot of steroids on a tiring athlete. Used judiciously, these words can spice up narratives without appearing… wordy.

By the way, do you think “judiciously” in the previous sentence had a stronger punch (without being bombastic) than, for example, “carefully” or “cautiously” (“with care” or “with caution” if you prefer to avoid adverbs)? What about “be alluring” two sentences before that—was it more evocative than, say, “attract” or “tempt” (no adjective, if you so prefer)? And what do you say to “evocative” in that last sentence compared to words such as “remindful” (ugh) or the slightly better “graphic” (I can’t see any way to avoid the adjective here, unless I change the sentence structure drastically)?

To readers, some words convey a lot more than their definitions. Take the simple word “space”. It is an outstanding argument for concise writing. Or is it? Let’s look at this word from two perspectives:

  • space, as in “the physical universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere” (Oxford) and “the region beyond the earth’s atmosphere or beyond the solar system” (Merriam-Webster); and
  • space, as in “the freedom to live, think, and develop in a way that suits one” (Oxford) and “the distance from other people or things that a person needs in order to remain comfortable” (Merriam-Webster).

Now close your eyes and visualize the word space. Here’s a rough representation of what most people would come up with mentally:



Do those first two definitions of space come close to portraying the beauty of what you are seeing?

Do those second two definitions of space come close to portraying the content loneliness of what you are feeling?

Strangely enough, (I think) that every day word, space, is more eloquent than synonyms like “cosmos”, “the heavens”, “the universe” or ”the void”. Due to some inexplicable insanity, I have always associated the void with a person’s intestinal tract after defecation.

Do you think the word “visualize” four paragraphs above has a stronger impact than “imagine” or “picture”?

Are some parts of speech to be avoided?

Avoided? No. Used sparingly? Yes. In my examples, I have used an adverb, a couple of adjectives, a verb and a noun. It just goes to show that with care, you can find a high-impact word, just one, that can make a huge difference to a sentence. Often, to an entire paragraph.

Yes, concise writing can include the occasional high-impact word.

You also need to take care not to overdo it.

I have read articles telling readers to avoid adverbs and adjectives, and I find sense in most of them. Some of them, however, give you the impression you should eliminate adverbs and adjectives from your writing. I have heard the same argument about synonyms for verbs like “say”. I think that is nonsense.

Used right, adjectives and adverbs help words provoke images. So do verbs. When a character says something, the normal reaction is… neutral? When that same character stammers something, the normal reaction is: I am either listening to someone with a speaking defect, or someone who is upset. The listener’s comprehension has improved a notch or two.

This is the first line of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

A bit of cleavage and a bit of thigh, would you agree? There are four adjectives there in a sentence of just 25 words, not to mention the one adverb. Do they enhance the sentence or diminish it? Here’s that sentence, stripped:

To the country (and part of the country) of Oklahoma, the rains came, and they did not cut the earth.

Ouch. My apologies, John Steinbeck.

Beautiful, maybe-not-so-concise words

I’ll wrap up by asking you to have a look at this image showing some beautiful adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs I have chosen at random.

beautiful words

beautiful words

Just savor the words, speak them out, reflect on their power to describe. Then adopt them—and remember, these words are just a representative sample of English’s beautiful words. There are many more such words. Used judiciously, they add high-octane count to concise writing.

Do you think some cleavage and thigh makes for powerful writing? Maybe you have a different approach that works for you. Either way, do drop a comment.

And oh, share, please?

Not so concise writing: OK?

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 4 min