Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Long and Short of It

There are two kinds of people: Those who practice brevity as the soul of wit* and those who are windbags.

The title of this post (542 words – the post, not the title) is an English idiom that dates back to cir. 1500, and was originally written as "the schorte and the longe of it." According to page 1129 of my unabridged copy of the The Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2,386 pages requiring a magnifying glass to read), the phrase means: "the sum total, substance, upshot; also, to make a long story short."

Making a long story short is the credo of the Internet. Sometimes I think that's good, yet I struggle with the notion that we can reduce the complexities of the world to a soundbite. I am a storyteller. Those who read this blog regularly know I am not a victim of brevity. The joy of these essays for me is taking an idea, examining it from all sides (or at least two sides), discovering tangents and relationships, then weaving them together into a cohesive whole.

Don't get me wrong; I like the short form, too; I'm practically addicted to the 140 character pith of Twitter.

But are we bowing down to the notion that 21st Century Americans are incapable of following a sustained argument? Must we cater to ever-shortening attention spans, or does that just exacerbate the problem? It breaks my heart to hear my 14 year old say he doesn't like to read novels because they are too long. Too long for what?

On the other hand, as an editor I appreciate the beauty of a succinct sentence honed to its essence. It's a search and destroy mission where my crosshairs settle on extraneous "thats" and pointless "in order tos". Perhaps the best advice ever given to writers comes from Elmore Leonard: "When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip."

Ironically, it was at the hands of storyteller Janice Del Negro that I learned an important lesson about keeping things short and sweet. In a workshop exercise, she asked us to retell a well-known story in a Haiku (a three line poem, with 17 syllables — 5-7-5). I loved the prompt (see my example here), and learned even epic tales can be distilled to just a few words.

But should they be? Is luxurious language passé? Or is there still time for the long, slow road of War and Peace (587,287 words), the grand scale of Gone With the Wind (423,575 words), or the symphony of multiple viewpoints in The Poisonwood Bible (177,679 words)?

I think — I hope — there is room for both. But then I remember the catastrophe that was the mullet (business in the front, party in the back), and I have my doubts.

FYI, that whole brevity being the soul of wit thing is actually part of a much longer sentence:

*Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?

— from Hamlet (32,241 words), by William Shakespeare

Your comments (short, long or somewhere in the middle) are always welcome.


greg said...


Anonymous said...

While I have never been one to use 3 words when 6 will do, and have often been accused of suffering from diahrrea of the keyboard, I do try to heed the minimalist philosophy of Antoine de St. Exupery: “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”


lbg said...

Here's a vote for storytellers!

Susan Bearman said...

Greg — great.

Jim — clearly your affliction applies only to the written word (if at all). IRL, I've known you to be pithy and to the point.

LBG — Thanks!

Unknown said...

Love this post! I was once told that my essays are too long for my blog, that people won't get them because they want a short and sweet post.

Susan Bearman said...

Kelly, you won't be surprised to hear me say go for it. Leave the soundbites to the politicians. Use your words.

Anonymous said...

Quite an inspirational little post here, thanks! I like anything that encourages people to write!

Susan Bearman said...

Neekswrite — glad you liked it. Are you writing?