In Praise of Brevity

The relative brevity of blogging vis-à-vis other modes of publication is often understood as reflecting the putative superficiality of the former. However there are virtues to brevity which are too little appreciated. Chris Dillow had a lovely (and brief) post on his blog about this a few months ago:

1. Longform writing is narcissistic. It presumes that one’s writing is so brilliant that it deserves to deprive readers of time they could spend doing other stuff – not least of which is reading other good things. And it is correlated with the notion that one’s ideas are so complicated and nuanced that only thousands of words can do them justice; this ignores the fact that a few qualifiers – “mostly”, “to some extent”, “in this context” etc – can signal nuance.

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Most stuff worth writing has been written already. Just link to it.

3. Anecdotes are not data. Stories add to the wordcount and give “colour”, but they often beg the question: are these stories representative? Simply linking to data is more accurate, and briefer.

4. Assume your readers are intelligent. (Granted, this is a weaker assumption for me than it is for those condemned to write for the Guardian or Telegraph). They don’t, or shouldn’t, need everything explaining. They should also be able to see objections to what you write, and objections to those objections. And if they can’t, ignore them.

5. There are diminishing returns to length. If readers think you’re a prat after 500 words, they’ll not change their mind after the next two thousand. In fact, there might be negative returns, simply because your gems are hidden. Laurie hides away a brilliant line – “Sometimes when you’re dying of thirst, you have to drink the Kool-Aid” – in thousands of words of ho-hummery. And none of the screeds written about Ed Miliband have affected my opinion of the man so much as a single paragraph from Steve Richards (again, hidden in unnecessary words).

I think the third point is an oddly narrow-minded quantitative prejudice. But I’d enthusiastically agree with all the other points. The first one particularly stuck with me. I’d struggled to articulate this previously but I think there’s often something aggressive about an inability or refusal to be concise in some contexts. I think there are some projects that render brevity impossible. But these are few and far between. I see an ability to be brief in some contexts as licensing length in others.

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