For Brevity’s Sake

Gerrie Ferris Finger 2Retired journalist Gerrie Ferris Finger won the St. Martin’s Minotaur/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery novel for The End Game. It was the first in the Moriah Dru/Richard Lake series. The second, The Last Temptation, was a finalist in the St. Martin’s/Best Private Investigator contest and was released in August, 2012. After spending twenty years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a reporter, editor, and columnist, she moved to coastal Georgia with her husband, Alan, and standard poodle, Bogey.

Gerrie Ferris Finger
The End Game
The Last Temptation
The Devil Laughed

My editor at Five Star Cengage Publishing directed that I cut 15,000 words from The Last Temptation (2012). When I asked for a word-count on my next manuscript, The Devil Laughed (Aug 21, 2013), he said to write your usual 95,000 words then cut 15,000.


Why is it so hard to write succinct prose? My fingers can tap out a chapter in under an hour, but have difficulty composing a message in Twitter’s 140 The Devil Laughedcharacter decree. Or for that matter, composing the first two paragraphs of this post.

It’s a tenet that defies all logic in speaking and writing. Shouldn’t we add clarity and distinction to those nouns that lay there begging for a modifier, even a dash of magnetism? And what about those verbs that desperately need adverbs to prop them up? Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The-most-valuable-of-all-talents-is-that-of-never-using-twowords-when-one-will do.”

Ah, the trick then is finding one word that will do. Take care to ditch high mountain and tiny ants. If the noun is not pre-modified, there’s the Thesaurus, and I’ve been known, like other writers, to make up my own action words out of other parts of speech, and always in the active voice. Adverbs can run up the word count unnecessarily. No need to write: he ran quickly. He’s running.

Even The Bard recognized the need for brevity and addresses it in Hamlet through his character, Polonius.

Polonius, advisor to Hamlet’s stepfather, King Claudius, was to spy on Hamlet and report on his actions to the king. Polonius relates what he has learned of Hamlet’s odd behavior by embarking on a long preamble that is beside the point.

Gerrie Ferris Finger ShakespearePolonius:

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. . . .

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 86–92

Freud aptly referred to Polonius as “the old chatterbox” in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. “Brevity is the soul of wit” has become an English axiom.

Gerrie Ferris Finger TwainI’m not the only writer who struggles with wit — the earlier definition of succinctness. Mark Twain fell victim to wit’s obstacles.

Twain’s publisher sent a telegram request: “NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS”), Twain’s reply: “NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES”.

He wrote with the principle that what you say does not count nearly as much as how you say it — and the fewer words you use to make your point, the more precise those words must be. Saying more with fewer words is good practice for all writing, especially novels.

The strength of writing comes from choosing the right words and that takes time. “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” — (Letter 16,1657) Blaise Pascal, The provincial Letters.

Writing shorter makes writing stronger, but it takes hard work, patience, focus, discipline and keeping to the adage that every word should be in the story for a reason. “If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought. — Dennis Roth

Take the adjective — please. There are those who contend they should be drummed out of the grammar usage. Mark Twain for one: “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 Gerrie Ferris Finger Pascalstrength 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.”

Who am I to criticize Twain, but he got rather wordy in advising us to use adjectives with care. He’s saying, in effect, every word should be in the story for a reason, like “I didn’t touch the wet paint.”

Here’s an example, the likes of which I see too often: “The moon was so striking tonight, lighting up the sweet-smelling, moist, green shrubbery so that it practically glistened, casting a brilliant, translucent glare…”

Hawkeye of M*A*S*H fame said it best: “If you bring that sentence in for a fitting, I can have it shortened by Wednesday.”

In summary, we can all practice brevity by writing in active voice and using brawny nouns and verbs, thus ridding our prose of uncalled for adjectives and adverbs.

Dorothy Parker, known for her snappy aphorisms shall end this discussion: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

Think about it.