Brevity

twitter-execution

Silk’s Post #156 — Has there ever, in the long history of the written word, been a more diminishing, devaluing trend than the imposition of the 140-character tweet as the arbitrary standard for social media discourse?

Has written expression been stripped of all its depth and nuance, and reduced in the Twitterverse to simplistic word belches? Slogans. Headlines. Blurts. Clichés. Inanities masquerading as deep thoughts. Rabble rousing provocations. Nyah nyah nyah taunts. (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump).

Anything worth saying requires more than 140 characters, doesn’t it? Is the world’s written expression in danger of being reduced to captions and emoticons? Is the richness and beauty of wordcraft being abandoned by an impatient audience trained to salivate for the next thing instead of the real thing? Is the literary sky falling?

Brevity is the soul of wit has become the watchword of tweeters, bloggers, copywriters, politicians, pundits, comedians, and others who use words as their professional currency since The Bard assigned that line to Polonius in Hamlet. Was Shakespeare wrong, or was he prescient?

As is often the case, Shakespeare’s subtleties tend to get lost when cherry-picked phrases are appropriated to serve a modern purpose. A little context: these ironic lines spoken by the foolish chatterbox Polonius, who thinks himself the smartest guy in the room, couch news of Hamlet’s madness to his parents, the King and Queen, in a gust of unnecessary and self-aggrandizing claptrap which demonstrates the speaker’s inability to take his own advice on brevity:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time;

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad …

Yet, no matter how ironically delivered, the truth of the gem hidden in an almost throw-away clause lives on in proverb. And there’s good reason for that.

Brevity is hard to achieve.

Writing short is much harder than writing long. Doing it well – that is to say achieving brevity while conveying meaning, beauty, truth, in short: wit – is the hardest of all.

I have a confession to make. I used to be an advertising copywriter. I don’t mean I did it in between more noble gigs or bouts of unemployment – I did it for decades. It was my career. And if you can separate what I learned from its commercial context, the gem of truth in that experience is that writing great advertising – with its rigid, Twitter-like restrictions on length and format – is hellishly difficult.

Want to know why there’s so much truly horrible, cringe-worthy, throw-your-shoe-at-the-TV advertising? That’s why. It’s hard. Only truly talented writers – people who can understand a human desire, capture a resonant thought, and stir a genuine emotion using a minimum of powerful words and imagery – are capable of creating great ads. And these writers, as even a casual acquaintance with the media makes perfectly clear, are rare.

At the risk of turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, look at poetry as another example of the challenge – and power – of brevity. Who has ever written a haiku? I see a lot of hands going up. Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing class, or been a bookish teenager in love, has probably written a haiku.

Now the punchline: who has ever written a good haiku? I realize it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a good haiku and a lame one (which should be a clue in itself). Yes, the exotic format does tend to make all haiku poems seem profound. But they’re not. Many of them are nonsense. (You can probably see by now how I’m working my way back to Twitter.)

I asked at the beginning whether the corrupting influence of tweets – essentially packaged word snacks – are killing our hunger for, and skill at preparing, full-course word meals. Are we dumbing down our communications in a way that risks dumbing down our ability to think, to use our full array of synapses to understand complex ideas and appreciate subtle nuances in written expression?

Scary question.

But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. More words don’t necessarily translate into more meaningful words. Maybe the existential challenge still is learning to convey more meaning using less words.

Brevity is the soul of wit – “wit” in Shakespeare’s context meaning intelligence, wisdom, perspective (with appreciation, in dramatic terms, for life as simultaneously both a tragedy and a comedy). In just 26 characters, he nails the writer’s challenge of capturing the “soul” – the essence of the conflict-laden human condition – in the most concentrated, evocative language possible.

It’s an art so difficult to truly master that it remains a rare commodity. I believe it’s a skill that needs to be cultivated and practised by all writers, whether they turn their hand to poetry, essays, short stories, novels, speeches, or, yes, even the modern vernacular of advertising and social media.

Can you write well? Good! Can you write short? If you tweet, that question answers itself.

Now try conveying a page of meaning in a single paragraph. Or a sentence. It’s fantastic mental and creative exercise. It might even turn you into a poet, and help keep the literary sky from falling.

5 thoughts on “Brevity

  1. Nicely done, Silk and so apropos. Whenever I read the famous sentence ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’, one poem more than any other, comes to mind. Ezra Pound’s famous 1912 Imagist poem’ titled ‘In a Station of the Metro’:
    “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.”
    If ever there was an exercise in brevity, this is it. Pound initially wrote the poem in 30 lines and reduced it to these final 14 words. Of note, there is not a single verb.
    Volumes have been written trying to analyze the poem. It’s worthwhile looking at it, not only for aspiring poets but any writer. It’s a good lesson in ‘brevity’.
    Thanks for sharing this inspiring post.

    • Thanks for the kind words Helga! Pound was a genius, and even for a poet he was a master of the oblique. I struggle (as you know!) to write short. I intended this post to be short as a demonstration of my point. Obviously I was less successful than Pound at hacking it back!

  2. A coworker (not a writer, just a bit of a character) suddenly announced that he’d decided to practice something new and not speak until he could condense what he said into the least possible words. I asked, “Isn’t that what poetry is?” He never mentioned it again.
    Of course, my favorite is Hemingway’s famous story: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
    Thanks, this was thought-provoking and a good reminder that I need to do some editing on my WIP.

    • Thanks for your comment Eugenia. That Hemingway quote really says it all about the power of brevity! Impossible to read without a painful stab of empathy — in 6 words. I think it’s because he makes the reader work out the awful meaning in her own head, makes her a participant in the story and gives her a sudden emotional stake. Masterful!

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