Lauding brevity in writing

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article on brevity in writing that appeared recently in the Prospero blog…

From 1992 until 1999 The Economist published a monthly column on the English language, under the by-line “Johnson” — as in Samuel Johnson (pictured above). The columns were composed by staff writer Stephen Hugh-Jones, and can still be read here.

The column was reintroduced as a blog in 2010 and, in 2013, moved to the Prospero blog, a sister site to the Economist, focusing on books, arts and culture. It is written by someone with the initials R.L.G. although I have no idea who that may be except perhaps Lane Greene. If you’re a regular reader of this column and know the identity of the author, please post a comment below.

I discovered “Johnson” when I read a rather fine piece, dated Aug. 6/15 on the topic of writing more succinctly. Here is the link. In it, R.L.G. exhorted teachers to give their students a greater appreciation for brevity. He suggested…

Try the following trick: assign students a paper of ten pages, and then tell them the real assignment is to trim it back to five in class, with the clock ticking. The resulting skill will, in its usefulness, far outlast anything they might learn about symbolism in Tolstoy or the causes of the Reformation. Then send the student who completes the assignment fastest to our internships page.

I have long appreciated brevity in writing and I agree with R.L.G. that our schools do no favour to students by giving them minimum word-counts for their essays. As he argues, this only instills the habit of needless information, repetition, and using three words where one will do.

These are bad lessons for any student.