How Do We Know Brevity Matters?

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad. 

Polonius, Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

Shakespeare wrote that brevity is the soul of wit. He meant that shorter sentences please listeners. But how do we know that’s true?

In this post, I’ll answer that question. I’ll then make an argument for including brevity in writing courses.

But first I’d like to share one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies. The son (a young Joseph Gordon Levitt) is learning the importance of brevity.

Here’s a link. Watch from 5:42-7:18.

There are three paths to the knowledge that Shakespeare got it right and brevity is indeed the soul of wit.

1. The Eye Test

Let’s start with the eye test. Which do you prefer?

I just wanted to call your attention to the fact that I need you to have that report on work-home-work commuting in by the deadline at the end of the week on Friday. Our past history around here may not have been absolutely perfect, and I totally understand, but I’d like to plan ahead better. Also, Kevin is a man who likes to complete all things and all his work in a timely manner. It’ll be a great benefit for him to quickly get things done fast.

OR

Just wanted to remind you to have the commuting report in by Friday. I know we’ve had problems, but I’d like to plan better. We can also help Kevin out. You know he likes to get stuff done on time.

The message is identical, but in version two I’ve removed the wordiness and the redundancies.

I think most people would say they prefer the second version. It’s more pleasant to read and more impactful. But don’t take my word for it…

2. The Style Guides

Our second path is the style guide. Respected authorities on good writing have always urged brevity. William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White famously wrote in The Elements of Style that:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

William Zinsser wrote in “On Writing Well” that:

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

To be clear, the experts aren’t saying that shorter is always better. A lot of other stuff matters as well. (Rhythm, grammar, tone, organization, coherence, etc. You can get a good summary of all the things that matter by examining famous writing rubrics like those for the SAT, GRE, and TOEFL.) But I think brevity matters most of all. And I think this is most clearly seen in the readability formulas academics have been turning out for over 60 years. They all encourage plain language.

3. Readability Formulas

Let’s first look at what a readability formula is and then how the good ones are related to brevity.

A readability formula is an objective way of saying how easy it is it to understand some writing. To give a silly example, a formula might say that if a piece of writing uses the word monkey a lot, then it’ll be easier to understand. To score a piece of writing, you would count the monkeys and perhaps divide by the total number of words. The makers of the monkey formula might argue that a higher fraction of monkeys means the writing is easier to understand.

We figure out if a reading formula is a good one by seeing how well the formula correlates with understanding. Writing the word monkey more doesn’t make something easier to understand, so the Monkey Readability Formula wouldn’t be a good one.

He may not help you write, but he is awfully cute. (Click on the pic for the photographer's Instagram.)

He may not help you write, but he is awfully cute. Click on the pic for the photographer’s Instagram.

But there are formulas that correlate well with understanding–and brevity is at their core.

What does it mean for a formula to correlate well with understanding? Well, let’s say a readability formula labels a particular biology article “hard.” And then let’s say just 10% of the population does well on a quiz about the biology article. That’s a pretty good readability formula. It said the article was hard and indeed most people couldn’t understand it.

There are many good readability formulas, but the most famous is Rudolf Flesch’s. He said that two things would make writings easier to read: shorter sentences and fewer syllables per word. Here’s his formula:

206.835 – 1.015*(total words/total sentences) – 84.6*(total syllables/total words)

That formula can give any writing a score that correlates well with how easy it is for people to answer questions about the writing. The score also correlates with how enjoyable it is to read something–a fact publishers take advantage of to increase book and newspaper sales.

(Read this if you’d like to know all the stats. Check page 21 if you just want a sense of the stats.)

The relation to brevity isn’t perfect. We could imagine wordy or redundant writing that got a high score on Flesch’s scale and Flesch himself writes about how dense language–which may decrease the words to sentence ratio–can make writing worse. But we usually don’t find that in the real world. We can contrive it, but it’s not common.

There are lots of different readability formulas, but the good ones all focus on brevity. Fewer words per sentence. Shorter words. This simplicity–this brevity–is at the heart of readability.

And it goes the other way, too. It’s no accident that when we write with brevity, we tend to get readability scores that indicate something is easier to read. You can try it out yourself. Go to this website. Copy and paste the two examples from “The Eye Test” section above. The top one gets a readability score of 72.2. The bottom one, 91.4. (Higher is better.)

* * * * *

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

-Blaise Pascal

So I hope you’ll agree that brevity is important for good writing. Those of us who teach or study writing should take the point to heart.

In my own Business Writing courses, the first week is an overview of good writing. But the second week is dedicated to brevity. I want to make sure students learn the brevity concepts as soon as possible. I then reinforce them throughout the course.

My instinct is that most Business English teachers ignore brevity and instead focus on grammar. But I’ll save a proper analysis for a future post.

How about you? Do you teach or study writing? If so, do you include brevity in your curriculum? Why or why not?

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