Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Brevity is the Soul of Wit ... and Good Writing

In an March 20, 1880 letter to D.W. Bowser, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) wrote:
"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice."
One of the more common failings in most writing is the use of a much bigger word than you need. Case in point: in my day job I see a lot of press releases with the word "utilize" in place of the word "use," among many other instances of similar overwrought wording. My sole theory about this is that we've been conditioned as a culture to believe that using a big word means you're smarter than the average person. A bigger vocabulary = a smarter person, in other words.

Now, we writers know that's not necessarily true. The best writing sometimes uses the simplest words, rather than the biggest, and is the better for it. An object lesson:

"He walked down the street." vs. "He perambulated down the avenue."

Both sentences say exactly the same thing. The second one, however, uses words that are more complicated than they might need to be. Granted, "perambulate" could refer to a specific kind of walk, but if all you want to say is that the man walked down the street then the first sentence is all you need to use.

In writing, it's always better to say what you need to say without using overblown words. Today on Twitter, RantyEditor referenced someone saying "We need to dialogue about this" instead of "We need to talk." That's another classic example of someone trying to sound smarter. All it does is make said person seem pompous. Of course, if you want your character to seem pompous, then by all means go that direction.

My point is this: don't use big words when you don't have to. Sending your readers scurrying to the dictionary every page or two is not a way to gain their loyalty. It's a way to alienate them. For the most part, at least.


Rick Daley said...

I like to use this comparison:

I extend to you an informal greeting.



L. T. Host said...

Normally, I completely agree with you. But one of the advantages as a writer to having a large vocabulary is having access to single words that otherwise would take whole sentences to say. In some cases, a big word can be more simple than simple words.

I also learned most of my large vocab words from reading other authors-- if no one uses them, how will anyone know that they exist? :) Most of the time, you can figure out the meaning by the context.

Now, I do agree with you that in some instances, they aren't appropriate or sound pompous. And as usual, it depends on the rest of the writing, so I guess my final thought is that it's a case-by-case basis, but I will still use them when I can, and share the wealth of authors who used them before me.

Natalie said...

I agree 100%, Matt. I hate reading books by authors who love to "play with language." Stories are better when they are written with simple, precise words.

Joshua McCune said...

You know I got your back w/ an uzi on this one. My wife, whenever she's 'splainin things to me about the body or anything even remotely medical, uses all these fancy-pants medical words, which may be typical talk for scrubbers of her ilk... I try to get her to come back down to the world the rest of us live in, but I don't think she knows where that is anymore.

Davin Malasarn said...

I tend to prefer the simple words too. But, honestly, I can appreciate it when a writer develops complicated language. For some reason, it does impress me. I think maybe it's because this shows more thought. Simple language could also potentially show more thought, but at least in my hands it comes out of laziness!

fairyhedgehog said...

I agree. There's a huge amount of craft in using language simply.

When I was in the Civil Service (many years ago) Gower's The Complete Plain Words was our Bible. It says things like: never use a long word where a short word will do.

I think that's the trick. Sometimes a long word is just the word you need, but if it isn't then don't use it!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Language is always, first and foremost, code - it is used to differentiate between social classes, cliques, and various gatherings of like-minded folk.

The academics long ago hijacked the fancy-pants talk. They utilize language constructs that intimidate through pontification.

Really can't stand that.

But I'm with LT on this: the artfully placed big word does so much more heavy lifting than a scattering of little ones. I almost delete the word recalcitrant from a short story yesterday, based solely on it being too fancy-pants. Ultimately I kept it because it was the perfectly pitched word in that sentence.

Too much of that will kill the reader with pretentiousness. But just the right amount slides down like a fine wine. :)

Bane said...

I think the key is not simplifying the word if it's gonna change the meaning or ruin the rhythm. Difficult to figure out, even for best-selling authors (e.g., Gregory Maguire needs a crash course in simplification).

Matthew Delman said...

Rick -- That is a perfect example!

L.T. -- Yes, sometimes big words are the best way to say something. Mostly my rule is if sounds pretentious then take it out, unless that's the route you want to take with the character.

Natalie -- Precision is the key, yes.

Bane -- Thank you, my friend. I did my master's in technical communication focusing in medical writing; you want to talk about acronyms? Medical writers and regulatory affairs professionals can have entire conversations where every second word is an acronym.

Davin -- I forget which article it was, but I once read a piece where the writer didn't use a single complex word in the entire piece. And this was roughly 2,000 words of text! I was tremendously impressed that he made a conscious effort to pull that off.

SKQ -- That's why I think so many people find academic writing hard to read through. Lord knows I'm finding it hard to write in that style what with putting together my very first one!

Matthew Delman said...

Joshua -- Gregory Maguire needs a crash course in how to not flog a dead horse.

Lisa P. said...

My favorite example is:

Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.

Jemi Fraser said...

So true. I much prefer simple and direct as well - although I love words and like to share fancy ones with my students as well. :)

I love Rick's example!

Anonymous said...

I like to use intelligent language but I still try to keep it non-pompous. I check to make sure I'm not going overboard. :)