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“Concision is not a definitive virtue.”

José Saramago reminds us that sometimes, there’s just a lot to say.

Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões (CC BY 2.0)

Our Daily Prompt yesterday used a quote by French philosopher Blaise Pascal, one in which he pointed out (only half-jokingly) how much hard work is required to stay concise.

Writers are always encouraged to say what they want to say with as few words as possible. So it might be counterintuitive — and refreshing — to hear Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate José Saramago advocate for the occasional fit of verbosity, via the narrator of his novel, The Stone Raft:

Jose Saramago. nbsp; Image by Elisa Cabot (CC BY-SA 2.0)

José Saramago. Image by Elisa Cabot (CC BY-SA 2.0)

We have deemed all these words necessary in order to explain that we have been traveling more slowly than was predicted, concision is not a definitive virtue, on occasion one loses out by talking too much, it is true, but how much has also been gained by saying more than was strictly necessary.

Jose Saramago, The Stone Raft

Writing as much as you want is only a bad idea if you don’t edit as much as you should.

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  1. Funny, I just tweeted the Pascal quote today. Thanks for bringing balance to the discussion. I learned a valuable lesson on this in seminary. One professor had a word limit. If you went over it, he docked the grade significantly. It was such a good exercise for me. Really challenged me to focus on the most important material. My process, though, was torturous. I’d write everything I wanted and then spend hours editing. I know the work I presented was much better as a result.
    Will be tweeting the last line soon.

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    1. I had a visiting Brown U professor, brilliant scholar, who did something similar in my graduate English studies. Take no notes during class. But on weekly papers: one page only, typed, one side, no margins if you want, but reduce all you have to say to that one front page. Great lesson to say everything but say it brief. Except for the final paper: I wrote/wrote a 54-page final one long Sunday – he gave me an A; but I doubt he read it.

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  2. I don’t think creative writers are asked to write as concisely as possible, i think they are encouraged to use moderation. Find that golden mean between their inner dialogue and the attention span of their reader. If it seems like conciseness is hailed unduly as a primary virtue in writing, i wager it is only because writers violate it with far greater frequency than any other principle of good writing. Oooops i think i used too many words.

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    1. …writers violate it with far greater frequency than any other principle of good writing…
      Absolutely true and well said. It’s easy to write it all out. Editing? That’s hard. It separates the average writers from the good writers.

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      1. Thanks :). I think editing is a huge part of it, but structural refinement is almost beyond editing, i honestly & regrettably feel that you either have the feel for it or you don’t. : ( don’t mean to shatter any dreams here

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  3. Sometimes it is nice to just write as the words flow. Editing – if you become over scrupulous – feels like cutting strands and joining the pieces in knots. Shorter sure but … the burrs are there.
    But space and other considerations – especially for news articles .. do require serious editing . That is a different art form.

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      1. You are right … I guess it is a fine balance. We all have to walk the fine line of writing in your own unique style on the one hand with consideration for the reader on the other. Hopefully at one point there will be a merging of the words … and with it the minds.

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  4. Seinfeld! Yep I am thinking Seinfeld could have a field day with this. Remember the Low Talker and the other characters? How about, “Oh, he’s a Close Editor!” Or “”She’s a Verbose Writer.” And “You’re talking about yourself in the Third Person, again!” Ha I miss that show. Great post!

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  5. P.s. A lot of great writers are quite verbose, i think where one possess the skills to lay down words with equal emphasis on ornament as on meaning, they are not subject to the bondage of conciseness. The problem is, again, most “writers” just dont have the skills, and in their cases, a verbal straight jacket yields marked improvement. It’s a lot like sports, pros can imbue their technique with plenty personalized flourish, but most everyone else needs to keep their movement strict and correct with emphasis on efficiency.

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  6. I’m on the fence on this. I have been guilty of using overly-flowery sentences when concision was called-for. But then, I fear slipping into a robotic news-copy speak if I report facts without embellishment of any sort. Balance is needed, of course.

    But then, my favorite authors include Orwell, Styron, Hemingway, and Wharton. I’m all over the place, taste-wise. Maybe good writing is just good writing. There are no rules.

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  7. If you choose to cover more material, then no doubt your peice will be longer. But it doesn’t necessarily become more verbose. I think it is best to pick what information you wish to convey to a reader and then try to be concise about how you do it.

    If you keep your writing information dense, your readers will thank you. I’ve noticed there are a lot of articles online which I skim over because they use entire paragraphs to convey a message that they could have got across in one sentence. Reading vast quantities in this format is very tiring and I appreciate when a writer gets to the point.

    If you decide to cover a lot of material, you might also consider the following reader conveniences:

    • Clearly marked asides, so a reader in a hurry can pass over them.
    • Loosely coupled and titled sections; A reader can safely skip sections that are of low importance to them and not lose the meaning of the text they do read.

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    1. I like your tips. As a lover of asides, I embraced footnotes with all my heart. Titled sections also organise the page visually. I know I sometimes brace myself when I see a page where a large paragraph follows another large paragraph without a synopsis – and I’m a fan of very in-depth analysis.

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      1. Thanks. I enjoy them too. I like being able to learn a little more when I have the time (e.g. how something I’m learning about was actually discovered). Using things like footnotes for asides means writers can preserve them without effecting the maximum speed at which the reader can acquire the knowledge on the page. It’s the best of both worlds.

        I’m hoping to write about these kinds of techniques a bit in the future. They seem to all share an underlying principle: Create a map of the knowledge you are sharing. If you have a map, you know what needs to come first. You can break it into sections that don’t depend on each other. You can put in signposts (titles, introductory paragraphs, footnote markers, the styling of the text itself) to help the reader navigate.

        Readers often come in with different starting knowledge, so helping them quickly find the bits they are unfamiliar with is a real help.

        Being able to find the knowledge is as important as the description used to teach it. That’s one reason I’m glad we have search engines.

        Anyway, I need to think a bit more before I tackle that topic in a better edited fashion. /ramble

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  8. Ahhh, this is a good lesson for me not to sit on my drafts too long! Quoting myself here 🙂 in response to that prompt about the brevity:

    “I don’t see concision in writing (especially fiction) as being as important as, say, clarity. And yet it’s often the first thing someone says about a communication they especially admire. ‘Great job! Very concise!’ BUT the fact is, for better or worse, the shorter, more concise version simply doesn’t say the same thing as the more verbose; removing words removes some of what one intended to say, changes the meaning.”

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  9. Speaking of concise, you’re style an content are impressive. I think I need to be reminded to edit. This is nice piece of creative nonfiction that serves us well. Nice work.
    I’m a newb…care to see social theory perverted in Dirty Harry? theherv.ordpress.com

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